Bill Gates has thrown his weight behind a small U.S. firm that hopes to licence its innovative biomass energy technology in Alberta and worldwide.
The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, who has backed several other U.S. biofuel startups over the years, is the lead investor in a $14-million-US financing round announced Thursday by Pennsylvania-based Renmatix.
The private company’s patented Plantrose technology uses water at high pressure and high temperature — in a process it calls “supercritical hydrolysis” — to convert wood chips, agricultural residues or other non-food plant waste into cellulosic sugars. The sugars are then used to make biofuels and biochemicals.
Renmatix claims its process is faster and less expensive than competing technologies.
“This investment in commercializing Plantrose will help drive towards the first wave of Renmatix licensees building Plantrose-enabled biorefineries in diverse global markets like Canada, India, Malaysia, the U.S. and elsewhere,” the firm said in a release.
Renmatix also unveiled a licensing agreement with Total S.A., under which the French energy giant plans to use the firm’s technology to produce one million tons of cellulosic sugar per year. The location of Total’s facility wasn’t disclosed.
Total has funded Renmatix previously, along with several other high-profile investors including Kleiner Perkins, a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and German chemicals giant BASF.
In an interview with the Journal, Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton, who has travelled to Alberta several times to promote the firm’s technology, said the province’s efforts to diversify away from oil and gas, along with its sizeable forest products and agricultural sectors, makes it an attractive market.
“Just like Total, I think Alberta is diversifying to add renewables in addition to fossil fuels, and as your environment minister has highlighted, renewables could be solar, wind or bio-based renewables such as those provided by Renmatix and its partners,” he said.
“Using Total as an example, they’re saying by the year 2035 they want to have 20 per cent of their portfolio in low-carbon businesses, including natural gas or renewable technologies.”
Total E & P Canada, a unit of Total S.A., has several key assets in Alberta’s oilsands, including a 50-50 joint venture with U.S. energy giant ConocoPhillips, and a minority stake in Suncor Energy’s Fort Hills project.
Alberta’s forest products industry offers a ready supply of wood-based biomass, Hamilton noted.
“A lot of former pulp and paper mills have struggled to stay in business as we’ve moved away from paper, so there’s a lot of mills and a lot of sites, including in Alberta, where Total is a very active player,” he said. “I think Total’s commitment is to be a producer of biofuels, and they may have multiple sites in many countries.”
Paul Whittaker, CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association, applauded the deal.
“We hear a lot about the potential of wind and solar when it comes to generation, and that’s great. Biomass from renewable sources is something that hasn’t gotten a lot of ink, but it’s going to be important for Alberta,” he said in an email.
“We’re good at agriculture and forestry in this province. And that means that we have a lot of biomass. Generating power from that biomass is a good way to diversify our economy and leverage our strengths.”