by Mindy Lemoine
I recently accompanied Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin on a visit to the headquarters of Renmatix, a 2015 winner of the Presidential Green Chemistry Award. You might expect that an award for innovation in green chemistry would involve an unpronounceable compound created through a complex sequence of transformations. Not this time. The solvent and catalyst for the award-winning process is…water!
Widespread adoption of plant-based chemicals to replace petrochemicals has been hampered by the high cost of the process of extracting sugars from biomass (plant material), such as wood. Current processes requiring enzymes or acids can’t compete economically with petrochemical sources. The award-winning innovation is a cheaper way to extract sugars using water. By making plant-based petrochemicals less expensive to produce, this process has the potential to be a game-changer in reducing our dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuels which contribute to climate change.
Ordinary water under the extraordinary conditions of high pressure and temperature becomes supercritical water: not quite a liquid, not quite a gas. This supercritical water can extract the sugars from biomass quickly. Then it becomes ordinary water again, ready to be cleaned up through reverse osmosis and returned to the process.
Renmatix is exploring options to extract sugars from a variety of biomass sources other than wood, including switchgrass, corn stover, the empty fruit bunches from palm oil production, and even municipal solid waste. They are also fine-tuning their product for a variety of other uses.
The scientists, engineers, and executives at Renmatix clearly appreciated our visit and EPA’s award as a validation of their innovation. I left the visit inspired by their creativity and energy. Some favorite words from anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley came to mind, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
About the Author: Mindy Lemoine is the Pollution Prevention Program Coordinator in EPA Region 3. She previously worked with local governments on protecting Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River watersheds. She lives in the Tookany Creek watershed, and is replacing her lawn with a suburban permaculture including sedges, pawpaws, and nut trees