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Planegg (Germany), 25 May 2023 – The Swiss specialty chemicals company Clariant has built the first large-scale commercial plant for the production of cellulosic ethanol based on its sunliquid® technology in Podari, in southwestern Romania, and commissioned it. The European Union supported the project with around 25 million euros as part of the LIGNOFLAG project. At today’s final conference of LIGNOFLAG in Planegg, the project partners presented the results of six years of successful cooperation.
Cellulosic ethanol helps decarbonize transportation in Europe
Clariant’s sunliquid® technology converts unused agricultural residues into cellulosic ethanol, an advanced, highly sustainable biofuel that can already be used as a drop-in solution in fuel blending. Compared to fossil fuels, CO2 savings of up to 95% can be achieved. “Biofuels from agricultural residues play a key role in achieving the European Union’s ambitious goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050. The investment in Romania thus makes an important contribution on the way to decarbonizing transport in Europe and building a more sustainable future,” says Dr. Stefan Brejc, coordinator of the LIGNOFLAG project and Head of the Business Segment Biofuels & Derivatives at Clariant.
Creating a domestic source of renewable energy
The sunliquid® plant in Podari is in the ramp-up phase. The plant can process 250,000 tons of straw per year to produce 50,000 tons of cellulosic ethanol (nominal plant capacity) if the targeted technical parameters are achieved. The straw is sourced from local farmers, with whom Clariant has already signed more than 300 contracts to ensure the supply of the necessary feedstock to the plant. The use of agricultural residues from the immediate vicinity promotes the production of biofuels in Europe. This reduces dependence on fossil fuels and ensures a competitive domestic source of renewable energy for Europe.
New green jobs along the entire value chain
The bioethanol plant in Podari, a structurally weak area in southwestern Romania, will help to strengthen the local economy when it is in permanent commercial operation. The construction of the plant, co-funded by LIGNOFLAG, will not only provide farmers with an additional source of income, but also create green jobs along the value chain. Currently, about 120 employees work at the plant, and nearly 300 people are employed in connected businesses such as collection, storage, and transport of the feedstock. The construction of the plant employed around 800 workers.
Energy-efficient production process through utilization of co-products
One objective of the LIGNOFLAG project was also to establish an energy-efficient and highly sustainable production process for cellulosic ethanol by recycling the two co-products lignin and vinasse. Lignin can be utilized energetically in a combined heat and power plant for the production of steam and green electricity, a tangible example of a circular economy. For this purpose, a CO2-neutral biomass cogeneration plant based on lignin was built in Podari to supply the sunliquid® production plant with energy and steam.
The use of vinasse as a fertilizer also was the subject of research within LIGNOFLAG and turned out to be promising in field trials. Alternatively, vinasse can also be used as an energy source. Furthermore, a “Life Cycle Assessment” was carried out in LIGNOFLAG for the entire production process of the Podari plant and the potential socio-economic impact of an advanced biofuel market in Europe was researched.
Commercialization of the sunliquid® technology
Together with the EU-funded LIGNOFLAG consortium, Clariant has developed a commercialization strategy for cellulosic ethanol based on the sunliquid® technology. This strategy includes a licensing business, which has already started. The aim of the technical optimization work at the sunliquid® plant is to ensure the commercial attractiveness of the technology. Potential customers intend to integrate the sunliquid® technology into their own production processes and thus expand their service portfolio of sustainable fuels.
The planning and construction of the plant in Podari received a total of €48 million in funding from the European Union, including around €25 million from the BBI-JU-funded LIGNOFLAG project.
The LIGNOFLAG project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No. 709606. The JU receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the Bio-based Industries Consortium.