Name: Atlantic Biomass Conversions Inc.
Funding: Company provided $80,000 in initial funding and has received $140,000 from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program and $70,000 from the Maryland Technology Development Corporation.
Big idea: Atlantic Biomass Conversions is developing a technique to produce methanol from sugar beet residue, the waste pulp that remains after the beets are processed for their sugar. The technology is still in prototype stage, but Robert Kozak, founder and president, said he hopes the company will be able to begin the first commercial installations at sugar beet plants here and abroad within a year and eventually expand the technique to other food industries that create pulp waste.
How it works: After sugar beets have been chopped up and stewed at high temperatures and all their sugar has been extracted, the remaining beet pulp is put into a bioreactor with enzymes engineered to extract methanol. "If you think of the beet pulp, there are a lot of long-chain polymers, or molecules chained together," Kozak said. "You feel the stringiness. In there, there are these long strings of biomass, and on the ends of them are different chemical groups. Our enzymes take those chemical groups away from the rest of the biomass, add water to them, and they become methanol." The process takes one to two hours. The remaining beet pulp retains some nutritional value and is used as animal feed.
How will it be used?: Methanol is a one-carbon alcohol that can be used as fuel. When added to soybean oils, for example, it creates a fuel that can be used by any diesel-powered car. The amount of sugar beet pulp produced in the United States would yield about 70 million to 80 million gallons of methanol a year, Kozak said.
Where the idea was hatched: With a background in transportation air quality and auto-emission testing, Kozak said he began asking if alternative fuels could be produced "without using corn, which has high value as a food source? It led from one thing to another after that."
Price: The cost of production is about 50 cents per gallon, Kozak said, less than the cost of methanol produced through corn fermentation, which Kozak said costs well more than a dollar.
Who's in charge: Kozak is the only full-time employee. He works with research teams at Hood College and University of Maryland at College Park, which are also partner institutions.
Web site: www.atlanticbiomass.com
Where will you be in five years?: "I hope in five years that we will have completed this first stage of our business and succeeded in expanding the bio-methanol process to a number of different agricultural residues. We hope in five years to be close to working with the lignin residue from the forest industry."
Kozak also said the company's method of modifying enzymes so that they can be used at higher temperatures could be applied to other industrial processes, such as creating detergents and solvents or converting biomass into plastic polymers. "If you can incorporate an enzyme at that [higher] temperature, you don't have to cool down a process and lose the energy," Kozak said.
-- Andrea Caumont