Pioneers in carbohydrates

Minneapolis, Minn. — Biorefining, Inc. wants to turn a dime’s worth of raw material into medicinal components worth hundreds of dollars — and do it more efficiently than anyone else.

The start-up company’s technology is designed to extract high-value components from carbohydrates found in distiller’s dried grains, sugar beet pulp, citrus pulp and soybeans. Extract uses range from sport drink additives to fluoride replacements.

Minus the water

Typically, carbohydrates are fractionated with a water-based process using 90 pounds of water for every 10 pounds of material. Biorefining’s patented Thorre Process essentially eliminates water; “we can extract more efficiently” at a lower cost, says Thom Menie, vice president of sales and marketing.

Products from the Thorre Process will be able to compete on an economic and functional level with a multitude of petroleum and biobased products, states a company document.

Materials like distiller’s dried grains (DDGs), an ethanol byproduct, can yield such high-value extracts as:

  • Xylose: a low-calorie sweetener and fluoride replacement; current market price of $6.60 to $7.00 per kilogram.
  • L-arabinose: used in a Hepatitis-B treatment and as a sucrose inhibitor for diabetic and weight loss applications; current price $100 to $140 per kilogram.
  • Galactose: plant-based, low-calorie sweetener and an energy additive in sport drinks and bars; current price $125 to $150 per kilogram.
  • Galacturonic acid: a nutrient for functional foods, a replacement for phosphates in detergents and a biodegradable surfactant; current price $150 to $280 per kilogram.

While increased supply of these fractions will inevitably lower their market price, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals are still far more profitable than livestock feed, which values DDGs at about 11 cents per kilogram.

Carb chem finesse

The dry extraction process was invented by Doug Van Thorre, a former dentist with a physics and chemistry background. His work as an FDA clinical investigator on dentistry led to other medical research and eventually to carbohydrate fractionation. Menie met him in the early 1990s when Van Thorre was scientific advisor on a wastewater treatment project.

In the late 1990s, Menie learned of Van Thorre’s carbohydrate work; they decided to seek a patent and start a company. “We sat in a room with three patent attorneys — all Ph.D.s — and they were basically blown away. This was a process that could revolutionize the way people process carbohydrates — it’s called a pioneering patent.”

At the meeting was Wesley Hayne, a former computer software CEO with substantial investment banking experience. “That meeting convinced Wes … to become full-time CEO of Biorefining.” Later Kim Plahn, with 17 years of financial experience, joined as CFO. “I’ve never seen a team as good as this company has,” says Menie, who has 28 years’ sales experience with such companies as Pillsbury, Johnson & Johnson and Oscar Mayer.

Starting out sweet

When Biorefining incorporated on January 21, 2001, it was called Sweet Beet, Inc. because the company’s first order was for pentose sugar L-arabinose from beet pulp. “That’s what got us going — we found out one plant alone was throwing off 300,000 tons of sugar beet pulp. We knew there was ample raw material at low cost.”

“But now the sugar industry is not doing well … and we’re seeing a lot of aggressiveness in the ethanol industry,” Menie says. Because the target components can be extracted from DDGs or “anything that is cellulose-based biomass,” including citrus pulp and soybeans, Sweet Beet became Biorefining, Inc.

Minnesota’s 15 ethanol plants each produce 13 to 40 million gallons of fuel per year. “There are 3,000 tons of distiller grains for every million gallons of ethanol — up to 20,000 tons of distiller grain per plant — that’ s a load,” Menie says. “There’s only so much you can put into (livestock feed); they have to find other ways of adding value.”

Back it around

Ideally, ethanol should be a byproduct of Biorefining’s extraction process, rather than the other way around, Menie says. Extract pharmaceutical ingredients from corn first, and ethanol producers “end up with what is essentially starch and glucose, easier for them to ferment. … Ethanol becomes the sidestream — nothing goes to waste; we totally maximize utilization of the crop.” Also, the biomass doesn’t have to be dried, which reduces pollution. Menie says up to 80 percent of ethanol smokestack VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions come from drying distiller’s grains and syrup.

Biorefining wants to “hook up with co-ops to get farmers involved in a bigger profit trail,” although Menie says it will also work with privately-owned plants. In October, Biorefining signed a joint venture letter of intent with an ethanol plant in Stanley, Wisc. The company is also talking to two ethanol cooperatives and an investor group in southern Minnesota. AURI is assisting Biorefining with process optimization studies and further technology development.

“We take what Mother Nature gives us and keep fractionating — we could end up with 20 or 30 (components), some valued at $4,000 to $6,000 a kilo,” Menie says. “We expect to be inherently more profitable than anybody else in our industry.”

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