Canadian Biomass Magazine

Infinite opportunities: Calgary biofuels player’s patented tech is both feedstock and product agnostic

May 8, 2024
By Maria Church

The SixRing Technical and Operations team in front of the commercial scale reactors in its Calgary facility. Photo: SixRing

If asked for the elevator pitch, Scott Treadwell, president of Calgary-based SixRing, will say they are offering infinite optionality on the inputs and outputs of their biomass technology, a rare feat in the industry.

SixRing has been operating under the radar for many years now while quietly developing more than 40 patent families (filing some in over 130 countries), scaling the technology and optimizing the downstream refining and associated end products to ensure commercial viability prior to entering the market. The core of the technology is a chemical delignification process that’s low-cost, scalable, and offers high conversion rates of non-food biomass to a multitude of end products. The company’s pilot plant has a 20,000-litre reactor that can process around three to five tonnes a day of biomass, along with many other technical support systems used in their process.

As Treadwell will tell you, SixRing’s advantage is in its flexibility. Their processes and methods can take any source of lignocellulosic biomass and turn it into high-value feedstocks for biofuels, speciality chemicals and advanced biomaterials. 

“You’ve got these fundamental building blocks coming out of the SixRing process that doesn’t lock you in to a downstream or end-use market. And what’s coming in as feedstock doesn’t lock you in to an upstream market, greatly de-risking the deployment of our technology versus alternatives, most of which are very capital intensive,” Treadwell says.


Company beginnings
SixRing’s technology evolution began more than a decade ago when current CEO Clay Purdy founded Fluid Energy Group Ltd. to offer chemical solutions to the oil and gas industry. The company’s aggressive R&D efforts led them to a solution for treating biomass to produce a very high purity cellulose and a liquid organic mixture that seemed to be reflective of a crude oil. 

Chief technology officer Markus Weissenberger understood quickly there was a strong technology differentiator and business development opportunity in the delignification of biomass using their fairly simple chemical mixture, Treadwell says. Last year, serial entrepreneur Purdy and his team sold its petroleum-based technology portfolio (numbering over 300 patents) to focus solely on commercial opportunities with SixRing technology, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Chemical Evolution Ltd. With some seed capital from the sale and around 40 staff, half of which are scientists, the company continued scaling up its pilot plant in Calgary that has been humming along for more than four years. 

Treadwell, a chemical engineer by education with a corporate finance and capital markets background, joined the SixRing team in 2022 as the company was executing the sale of its energy industry business. The leadership team is well-rounded with legal, commercial, financial and business development expertise across the group.

“One of the things you sometimes see with startups is the cliché that they are run out of a garage with guys in lab coats. They typically have very innovative technology – and we saw this all the time in oil and gas – but a lot of that technology doesn’t make it to the mainstream for lack of a vision and a strong corporate team to bring it to market,” Treadwell says. 

With the corporate team in place and the technology proven at small commercial  scale under the direction of Weissenberger, SixRing is nearing the finish line and ready to broadcast their story with the help of key employees such as Ron Hoffmann, a former Canadian ambassador whose rolodex has been critical to much of the federal and provincial support the technology has garnered.

Lignocellulosic biomass has three chemical components: lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. In the breakdown process, Treadwell likens lignin to three-dimensional barbed wire. 

Operator Ashish Macwan purifying LHDO using small scale rotary evaporators. Photo: SixRing

“It’s incredibly tough to get through, being difficult to break in any meaningful sense, so typically the only way it’s been done is through brute force – lots of chemical energy or lots of heat and pressure – but that can have negative impacts on the chemical composition of the end products,” he says. “We’ve found a way to take the chemical equivalent of very small wire cutters and cut very specifically through the barbed wire and basically peel it back to access the inside, very precisely, retaining the high value molecules typically degraded in other processes. The high value components inside can now be taken out separately with very little impact to their chemical composition.” 

The SixRing delignification process has a low energy input and a high yield – 99 per cent delignification occurs with minimal losses. The ambient temperature and pressure process creates two product streams: a liquid lignin hemicellulose depolymerized organics (LHDO), and a solid cellulose. 

The resulting lignin remains in liquid form and does not repolymerize or reform as a solid, making it suitable as a chemical feedstock as well as a fuel solution, already proven to be refined into gasoline, diesel and, maybe most importantly, SAF or sustainable aviation fuel. The other original components – cellulose and hemicellulose – both exit the process as mainly unaltered chemicals, which have a multitude of uses in dozens of industries including chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals. 

“Over 80 per cent of the incoming mass of that biomass is turned into saleable products,” Treadwell says. 

Many downstream processes are in place to expand the potential end products of LHDO and cellulose. Biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials are all pathways to market. 

SAF is one potential that has both scalability and a growing pool of motivated investors as regulatory changes become law with heavy non-compliance penalties coming into effect. SixRing’s technology can provide two different feedstocks for SAF production, first through ethanol production from cellulose to feed alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) conversion, and secondly through the refining of its LHDO, which has shown very high conversion to the lightweight fuel products required for aviation uses.

“The fact that we use non-food based biomass is a huge enabler for SAF growth,” Treadwell says. “There is still some downstream technology that needs to be brought to market, fully commercialized and optimized to get cost down to where it makes sense – to be economically sustainable for the end-user. The SixRing technology is a pathway to assist heavy industry with decarbonization now that there is a viable technology that can provide the required feedstocks for these already proven catalytic methods which produce the final fuels.”

On the feedstock end, being agnostic plays well into the agricultural trend towards regenerative farming. As farmers rotate crops to maintain soil integrity, SixRing’s technology can process whatever feedstock is produced each year, and at whatever amounts exceed what is needed to keep healthy organic material in the soil. 

“We can work to make sure enough is left and farmers get a revenue stream no matter what crop it is they are growing,” Treadwell says. 

Scaling up
SixRing’s pilot plant in its current iteration can process up to five tonnes a day of biomass. The plant has mainly processed agricultural residues including cereal straws, oilseed straws, rice hulls, and corn stover. Other interesting trials have included sugarcane bagasse, date palm tree cuttings, as well as hardwood and softwood fibre, including hogfuel and salt-contaminated woods, most of which were supplied by partners across four continents. These partners are all in discussions with the company for licensing of its technology, direct investment or another commercial relationship. The team has been working with major pulp and paper companies for almost three years now. 

Andrew Corbett, a research chemist, completes production of a lab sample of SixRing’s biocrude. Photo: SixRing

Aside from the reactor and its delignification process, all other downstream technology in the pilot plant is off the shelf, yet accounts for around 90 per cent of the capital for a commercial facility, Treadwell says. “We’re really only scaling up that first 10 per cent and I would say we’re now there. Essentially we’re at the finish line and now raising capital to deploy an asset we own as our licensees do the same in their respective jurisdictions.”

SixRing’s Phase 1 of its first commercial plant is set to process 25 tonnes a day with six to eight reactors of a similar size to the pilot plant. The company is working with Gas Liquids Engineering in Calgary for initial work on future commercial facilities, and has engaged with some OEMs in the biofuels industry for scaling up to commercial production. 

Last year, SixRing signed a memorandum of understanding with the Edmonton International Airport to explore a commercial facility that would advance the use of biofuels, including SAF, in the Edmonton region and has since signed and formed key relationships around the world with refiners, biomass asset owners, end users and government entities.

Strategically, Treadwell says, Edmonton is flush with both industrial refining infrastructure and agricultural and forestry feedstock supply. “Having a partner like Edmonton airport that’s looking to push sustainability forward and be one of the first major entities through the door is a great advantage for us to bring global attention and build the consortium to deliver that facility,” he says.

Success in Canada
SixRing’s leadership is proud of its Canadian roots, but operating in Canada – a high-cost jurisdiction – comes with unique challenges. Labour is one part of that challenge, as is the dwindling supply of made-in-Canada materials, and long hauling distances to bring in feedstocks. 

SixRing can process non-food biomass in almost any shape or size, including this shipment of rice hulls. Photo: SixRing

“Canada has done a lot to try and valorize biomass, not just in forestry but in agriculture as well,” Treadwell says. “But in a global sense, thinking of biofuels, you’re trying to chase $80 a barrel oil and $5 a gallon diesel, and if you are starting with feedstock that’s $150 a tonne, you’re on the back foot economically.”  

Despite these challenges, the fundamental conditions to succeed in the biomass industry at scale are as good in Canada as in any other jurisdiction, Treadwell says. There are some policy gaps, he acknowledges, but these policies must be balanced to ensure taxpayer money is invested sensibly. 

And most importantly, Treadwell says he believes the majority of Canadians are wiling to support new solutions, even those that come at a small price increase, if it’s the right thing to do, especially when they save or create new jobs.

“I think Canada is a country where people are open to doing things better. If there is a slight incremental cost, people are willing to at least evaluate it on its benefits before saying, ‘No, I don’t want to pay another nickel for my litre of gas or plane ticket.’ So I think there is an opportunity here to build markets and build end uses. There are enough people with enough good will for Canada to be a leader.”

Similar to the energy industry, Treadwell says the biomass industry at times struggles to marry technical expertise with sales expertise. “Sometimes the good technology and the good story aren’t the same thing. You have good technologies out there that suffer because the story is not being told properly. And you have some really good stories, but when you dig into them they’re not as shiny as you once thought. And that’s true in any industry,” he says. “I do think as the industry matures you will start to see a movement of talented people.” 

Visualizing 10 years from now, Treadwell sees success for SixRing as a multi-billion-dollar company with 100 or more employees that has licensed its technology globally. The company has evolved from one that develops processes to one that is solving downstream, final-product problems. SixRing will continue to invest heavily in R&D, he says, but that will ideally shift from tech commercialization to product development and licencing support. 

“In 10 years we would like to be a global example in how you solve humanity’s challenges with bio-based solutions that are both cost-effective and fundamentally sustainable,” Treadwell says. •

Print this page


Stories continue below