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Bill Gates joins $14 million round for Renmatix’s sugar-based alternative fuel

Renmatix's Plantrose process converts biomass into cellulosic sugars.

Alternative energy startup Renmatix has raised $14 million from Bill Gates and global energy firm Total to make fuel from non-food organic sugars.

Total has agreed to use Renmatix’s Plantrose process to create biorefineries that can make up to 1 million tons of cellulosic sugar for alternatives to fossil fuel.

“We’ve worked eight years to make renewable chemicals cost-effective,” said Mike Hamilton, CEO of Renmatix, in an interview with VentureBeat. “We now have a renewable alternative energy path away from fossil fuels.”

Philadelphia-based Renmatix has now raised more than $140 million from investors including chemical giant BASF and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Even though oil prices are down, the world will eventually run out of fossil fuels. And that’s where building biorefineries, which convert cellulosic sugars from non-food materials, such as wood pulp, into a form that can be used for fuel.

Hamilton said that the new 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. In parallel, that activity will facilitate further market development in downstream bioproduct applications.

Renmatix's Plantrose process.

Above: Renmatix’s Plantrose process.

Image Credit: Renmatix

Late last year, Bill Gates brought together nearly 30 investors to focus on investments in energy innovation. This group, called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC), committed to investing in new technologies that can solve the climate crisis while providing reliable power for everyone on earth. This investment is consistent with the mission of the BEC.

In a statement, Gates said, “To effectively address climate change, we need to develop an energy infrastructure that doesn’t emit greenhouse gas and is cost competitive. A critical component in this effort must be to decarbonize the industrial sector. Another is the possibility of cost competitive biofuels. Renmatix provides an innovative process that is an exciting pathway to pursue.”

Publicly traded Total, which also invested in 2015, is expanding its investment and has signed a licensing agreement with Renmatix to produce a million tons a year of annual cellulosic sugar. The license represents significant revenue potential for Renmatix, extending over the lifetime of the agreement.

“At Total, our ambition is to become the responsible energy major. We want to make low-carbon businesses a profitable growth driver accounting for 20 percent of our portfolio in 20 years’ time. Meeting these goals is what has led to setting-up and expanding our collaboration with Renmatix” said Patrick Pouyanné, chairman and CEO of Total, in a statement.

The patented Plantrose process uses supercritical water to reduce costs in conversion of biomass to cellulosic sugars, the critical intermediary for second-generation biochemical and biofuels such as ethanol. With faster reactions and virtually no associated consumable-expenses, Renmatix’s supercritical hydrolysis economically enables low-cost sugars.

As an example, Hamilton said a paper mill could use wood pulp and convert it into cellulosic sugars, which can become the foundation for fuels that the paper million could use. Renmatix believes Plantrose sugars are competitive with oil at $40 to $50 a barrel.

Hamilton acknowledged there’s a long way to go.

“Think of the world’s need for oil and gas on a daily basis,” he said. “Millions of barrels of oil are produced. We are a long way from being able to do that. But we can make a significant contribution.”

The company has 85 people, and Hamilton said engineering designs for biomass facilities are expected to be created in 2017.

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