The Farmer's Alchemist
Inventure Renewables expects to convert $40-a-ton farm refuse into $600-per-ton biofuel. Global agribusiness has bet millions the alchemy is marketable.
Inventure Renewables founder Rusty Sutterlin in the lab that produced the company’s patented Mixed Super Critical Fluid process, which can convert more than 90 percent of raw cellulose into glucose in five minutes.
There’s oil in them there … corn cobs?
A Tuscaloosa-based company certainly thinks so. Inventure Renewables has created a process to take basic waste biomass, such as agriculture residue and wood chips, and convert it into biofuel to produce ethanol.
This patented process, which the company calls Mixed Super Critical Fluid (MSCF) technology, can be used for the production of fuel, plastics and other products, according to company founder Rusty Sutterlin.
“There is a lot of waste out there that is just being burned or not having any value being added to it,” says Sutterlin, a native of Birmingham who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Missouri. “We can use simple chemistries to turn that waste into higher-value products.”
Sutterlin began working on this process in 2008, when he rented out 60 square feet of space at the University of Alabama’s technology incubator. With the help of a Small Business Innovation Research grant and money from investors, Sutterlin’s company quickly grew.
In 2013, Inventure Renewables left the incubator — becoming the first graduate of the facility — and moved into a 35,000-square-foot building. The company now has approximately $15 million in capital and 25 employees.
“We hire recent graduates from the University of Alabama who specialize in chemistry and chemical engineering,” Sutterlin says. “So we keep those scientists here in the state and help prevent a brain drain.”
Inventure’s MSCF technology breaks down cellulose polymers into glucose and other fermentable polysaccharides. More than 90 percent of the raw cellulose can be converted into glucose in a process that takes less than five minutes. The sugary syrups derived from the organic by-products can be used instead of corn syrup in the making of ethanol.
The company is working on employing a variety of products in this process, including corn stalks and corn cobs, soybean husks, sugar cane, rice straw, grass and pond algae. Sutterlin says it is possible that the ample supply of kudzu spread throughout the South also could eventually be utilized.
Sutterlin says these low-value residues are worth as little as $40 a ton raw but can be valued at as much as $600 per ton when transformed into biofuel. Last year, the company began working on two commercial nutritional ingredient facilities that can each produce 30 tons of biofuel per day.
“In the agricultural industry, if you can use all of the crop — the stalk, the husk — then you can increase your value,” Sutterlin says. “So we’re trying to bring more value to the farmers and others involved in the agricultural business.”
Among Inventure’s earliest investors is Wilmar International, a Singapore-based company that is one of the largest agribusiness companies in Asia. Wilmar has provided Inventure with more than $12 million in financing over the past three years.
Sutterlin says his long-term goal is to create a series of conversion facilities in Alabama and beyond, making this region a hub of biofuel production.
“I want to develop these technologies into commercial plants and then have centralized processing facilities throughout the state,” Sutterlin says. “After that, we can start creating a central core throughout the Southeast. Because there is a lot of biomass waste in the Southeast.
“This is an area we can really step into. I want to create a central core of knowledge and people and other companies who will flock to the region and create more jobs and more industry.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.