Inbicon moving towards version 2 and 3

15.04.2013, News

DONG Energy and the world's first demonstration plant for the production of 2G bioethanol, Inbicon, is not more or less closed as many mistakenly believed. On the contrary. Inbicon is now moving towards a version 2 and even a version 3. BioRefining Alliance has interviewed the CEO of DONG Energy's New Bio Solutions, Henrik Maimann.


Photo: Henrik Maimann is CEO of New Bio Solutions at DONG Energy. Before he entered DONG Energy in 2012, he has held positions such as Director of Emission Control SBU with GEA Process Engineering and CEO of GEA Bischoff GmbH in Germany and Managing Director of Alstom Environmental Control Systems in Japan.

Biomass will increasingly replace coal in DONG Energy’s power plants, but the company is also working on getting an even higher value out of biomass than just electricity and heat. The bioethanol plant Inbicon is already a good example of that - and it does not stop there. Inbicon will continue to support the development of new bio-based solutions in DONG Energy.

15,000 hours of operating experience transformed into new and better solutions

BioRefining Alliance has visited CEO of New Bio Solutions, Henrik Maimann. At New Bio Solutions they are working on getting the most out of biomass through the development of concepts and solutions for advanced biorefining.

Can you briefly tell the story of Inbicon?

Inbicon is a project that was started back in 2003 at the former Elsam. Elsam had a long experience with biomass, which after the fusion with DONG was transferred to DONG Energy. This knowledge and experience led to the development and production of 2G bioethanol based on agricultural waste products.

First, pilot plants were build in Skærbæk. They are still in operation as one of our research stations. Prior to COP15 in 2009 it was decided to build an industrial demonstration project in Kalundborg - what we now call Inbicon – to get the knowledge required for operating an industrial-scale plant. It is not enough to know how the process works, we must also be able to test the technical solutions, materials and components.

There are now 15,000 hours of operating experience at Inbicon. Both continuous operation and campaign runs, where you change the various parameters. The plant has actually been rebuild earlier, so up until now it has been completely updated. 

Why have you chosen to rebuild the facility now? 

The market for 2G bioethanol - also called cellulosic ethanol - is very dynamic now. There is a lot going on in both our company and at our competitors. 

Inbicon will not be bigger but better and better 

There is clearly a development in both the industry of enzymes and yeast at the moment. The yeast is used for fermentation of the sugars the enzymes has pulled out of the cellulose. Some of these developments we see as an opportunity to make our process even more competitive. 

Therefore, it is not only necessary to rebuild now, but also in a ten-year perspective, where we continually must adapt our systems and process to the development.

Inbicon will be a significant asset that allows us to test our ideas in medium scale before we roll them out to a large scale. Our customers will probably not like that we every six month want to try something new on their plant. So Inbicon will be beneficial for both new and old customers.

We can go back to existing facilities and offer a proven modified technology with higher performance. There is of course a difference when converting a plant that produces 5 million liters and one that produces 75 million liters. It has a totally different cost making a process change on a large scale plant.

So Inbicon maintains its size?

Yes, and therefore it is clear that when you look at a plant of this size it will be difficult to get good operational economy because there are some factors, such as monitoring and maintaining the system, where you are not able to scale the people down. We cannot end up with a half operator. So there are some operating costs, which means that a plant of this size will never be a sound business case.

If we for example look at one of our competitors, Beta Renewables, which has done pilot-scale experiments, and now go out on their own expense and build a full scale plant. In principle we welcome that, because this market needs to be pushed from all sides. It is not enough that there is a Inbicon, which can do these things. There must be other projects, too. However, it is clear that going from pilot to full scale is a very expensive and risky way to test industrial standards.

We chose a different approach and built a medium plant, which was large enough so we could build industrial components into it. In this way we get the full-scale experience. Where are the bottlenecks in the process? Which components do typically have errors? Issues we have corrected over the years.

Photo: Inbicon seen from the air.

New yeast can increase ethanol yield by 50 percent

What should specifically be done with the plant?

We are mainly doing one thing. Over the past years, there has been a big development in yeast.

The process we are currently using at Inbicon is what we call version 1. Here, we use a conventional yeast, which only can ferment a sugar called C6 and not C5 sugar, but there are now yeasts on the market that can ferment both C6 and most of C5. In our current ethanol production C5 - also called molasses – is considered a by-product, which can become feed or be used biogas.

At our pilot plant in Skærbæk we noted that the new yeast can increase the ethanol yield of a bale of straw with up to 50%. That is a dramatic change in a business case. We call this a version 2.

Can you give some concrete numbers on what the yields have been so far and what they will be?

No. At DONG Energy we have a policy that we do not go public with our yields, but I know, that we with the current ethanol yield already are at top compared to our competitors. It has been confirmed in our customer surveys. And now the yield will be much better than that.

We have not developed the yeast ourselves and therefore it is available for our competitors at the market. So we do not expect to have a huge head start, but we still expect to do even better than what our competitors can offer.

We have a supplier of the yeast, which has developed it commercially – and it is someone we of course have collaboration with. Since we are among the first to test this yeast on an industrial scale, there has been an interest from all the actors involved in this area.

What properties does the yeast have?

It is genetically engineered yeast - and this is the reason why a transformation of Inbicon is needed. The process is not very different, but using genetically modified yeast provides some immediate requirements for our operating permits. Permits we now have obtained.

Some of the requirements are, of course, that if there is a leak the yeast will not be led into our sewer system. A large part of our transformation is to separate our sewer systems so we can pick up the yeast. If there is a leak in a fermentation tank we have a system that sends the yeast to destruction.

So the old yeast could be sent directly into the sewer system?

Yes, it had no specific environmental requirements, but there are some very specific environmental requirements for genetically modified organisms, and they are the ones we follow. That said, we are talking about a closed system here. It is not like in agriculture, where a GM crop is likely to spread in to the wild. It is mainly about how we manage the yeast and if a fault occurs in the system.

What harm would a leak of this GM yeast do compared to normal yeast?

It is not because it is dangerous, but we need to make precautions, because authorities will not want us to send genetically modified organisms uncontrolled out in the system, and that is completely understandable.

So in short: you follow the precautionary principle?


Version 2 means more ethanol

In addition to these safeguards will there be other technical changes to the system such as new boilers?

No, but what we do is that we operate with different versions of Inbicon. Now, I have mentioned version 1 and version 2. It does not mean that version 1 is obsolete. It all depends on what makes a given project optimal.

As an example a project like Maabjerg Energy Concept (MEC) can be a version 1 plant, where C5 sugar are not fermented, but instead is included in biogas production. Which version you use depends on whether you want to give priority to maximize the ethanol yield as in version 2 or whether it is more worthwhile to let the by-products be included elsewhere in the energy system.

For now, it makes most sense to let MEC produce biogas to the gas system since the price paid for biogas is so high that it can be an advantage not to convert C5 to bioethanol, but instead increase biogas production.

At MEC they plan on building a system that relatively easy can be turned into a version 2, if ethanol prices rise. It provides flexibility, which investors find positive.

Version 3 goes beyond fuels

Moreover, we actually started on a version 3, which is what we call a sugar platform. Here, we do not produce ethanol, but pure sugars for further processing in the chemical industry. It can be plastic or other chemicals, which currently use fossil resources as raw materials. In the longer term we expect these bioproducts to be just as interesting as ethanol. In Kalundborg, we test on a pilot scale, what the sugars look like and what kind of quality we could provide to interested partners.

Therefore, DONG Energy wants to go beyond simply producing bioethanol?

Yes, we identified an interest in it on the market.

So like Beta Renewables has ambitions in the longer run to provide sugars for use in its polyester business, DONG Energy in the future also will be able to provide sugars for the production of such biochemicals?

Yes, but the difference is that our delivery is just around the corner. The challenge here is that you skip the fermentation and distillation and deliver a product, which alone has undergone a pre-treatment. So already during pre-treatment you have to make sure that sugars are completely separated from the lignin - and this is where it gets more complicated.

So your focus will therefore be on the purification of these sugar streams?

Yes, there are different requirements for how much lignin there must be left in the product we deliver. Some customers require sugars with very low lignin content, while others can handle larger amounts. What we are doing now is talking to potential partners - including large chemical companies in both the EU and the U.S. - as well as screening the qualities we believe we will be able to achieve. In 2014, we will be ready with the right concept for our sugar platform.

Projects abroad

Due to the high tariffs and subsidies on biogas in Denmark compared to other countries, version 1 is most relevant here, but do you see an export market for version 2 and 3?

If you look at our activities in the last six months' time, we've got some interesting partnerships in the markets where we see the greatest progress.

In Brazil, we have reached an agreement with ETH, which is part of a group called Odebrecht. Currently, they are producing 1G ethanol from sugar canes. Through the 2G technology they would like to increase ethanol production by using the biomass, which today remains after the 1G production.

In the fall, we expect to be ready with concepts and confirmed production rates so we can present a sound business case. Then ETH will build the first plant in Brazil. We are looking very much forward to this. Since this project is about getting the highest ethanol yield possible it is what I would call a typical version 2 project.

Photo: ETH's bioethanol plant in Brazil.

In China, we have several projects going on. For example we have one together with a company called National Bio Energy (NBE). There we are in the process of developing a concept where we create a synergy with a power plant using biomass as fuel.

First, we will exploit biomass in an ethanol plant. Then we run the residuals from the production – i.e. lignin and the unreacted C5 - into the plant. The concept looks very promising. NBE currently has 30 power plants of similar size across the country.

The Chinese authorities have launched a number of grants for demonstration projects with associated favourable funding opportunities. Along with NBE we try to be considered for one of the first projects.