Hexas Biomass: Can a new plant-based material take the place of wood?
Can a new plant-based material take the place of wood?
It’s an ancient activity that dates back millennia: burning wood to heat homes and cook food. Today, however, this age-old practice has a double impact on the world’s environment.
Forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere through the carbon cycle and cutting down trees reduces an ecosystem’s ability to retain carbon. This in turn contributes to a warming planet. What’s more, studies have shown that the combustion of wood releases as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning natural gas or coal.
In our modern age, the use of timber has expanded to other applications as well, including building materials, packaging, paper and furniture. The list goes on.
As more and more forests are cut every day, we lose an important tool in our ability to moderate climate change through carbon sequestration.
A Greener Grass
Hexas Biomass, a startup based in Olympia, Washington, is developing a sustainable alternative to wood for many applications. In addition to energy, the company’s product, called XanoFiber, can be used in place of wood or fossil fuels in the production of chemicals, packaging, textiles and building materials. Unlike wood or other biomaterials, XanoFiber is carbon negative, even when used for combustion.
Wendy Owens, chief executive officer, founded Hexas Biomass in 2020. Owens had previously worked in biotech, helping to develop therapies to treat rare diseases. After years in that sector, she felt the need for a shift and was drawn to problems related to the climate crisis. “I believe that this is the best use of the time I have left on this Earth to support my children and their children,” Owens said.
XanoFiber is produced from a plant called XanoGrass, which has been developed through a process known as selective breeding and “looks like corn and bamboo had a baby,” according to the company. But XanoGrass is more than just a cute relative of the two common plants. XanoGrass has a higher yield per acre compared to Napier grass, miscanthus, hemp and switchgrass, a few of the other plants that are used to produce biomass. An acre of XanoGrass yields more than 25 tons of product, while an acre of Napier grass yields 16 tons and an acre of switchgrass yields five tons.
The cost of a ton of XanoGrass is also significantly less than alternatives. What’s more, XanoGrass can be grown near manufacturing facilities, further reducing transportation costs and CO2 emissions. “It’s very important if you can grow the biomass near where it’s needed,” Owens said. “We can also harvest year-round, not just at one point during the season, so we also reduce costs by essentially storing in the field.”
This flexibility stands in contrast to wood pellets, which are harvested and manufactured in places like the southeastern United States only to be transported overseas on diesel-powered cargo ships, and then burnt for heat in homes as far away as Asia and Europe.
Hexas Biomass has raised $1.3 million in non-dilutive funding via Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, which required the development of a robust commercialization plan that Larta created with the company.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Founder & CEO
We can also harvest year-round, not just at one point during the season, so we also reduce costs by essentially storing in the field.
Founder & CEO
Owens and her team are currently focused on commercializing XanoFiber as a biofuel. XanoGrass has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a bioenergy crop that meets the Renewable Fuel Standard. Currently, the company is expanding commercialization of XanoFiber as fiberboard, paper and even as a sustainable aviation fuel.
“The main challenge right now is being able to ramp up fast enough to meet demand,” Owens said.
When asked more broadly about how society can address threats that come from a changing climate, Owens noted that these issues won’t be solved by technology solutions alone.
“The only way we’re going to address the climate issue is to monetarily incentivize action
at the individual, corporate or national level,” Owens said.
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