‘Just the beginning’ for Solugen

Marshall celebrates groundbreaking for new low-carbon chemical plant

Photo by Deb Gau A groundbreaking celebration for the new Solugen chemical plant in Marshall brought together local, state and federal officials, in addition to representatives from Solugen and ADM. From left to right are Solugen CTO Sean Hunt, Solugen senior procurement manager Kelli Geise, ADM vice president of sweeteners Mark Wirkus, Minnesota DEED Commissioner Matt Varilek, Greg Jaffe, senior adviser to the office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes, and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

MARSHALL — The construction by Texas-based company Solugen of a new 500,000 square-foot, low-carbon chemical plant was hailed by local and Minnesota officials during a groundbreaking ceremony held Thursday at the Red Baron Arena.

Officials, including Solugen executives, bragged the new plant will be positive on both an economic and environmental level.

“We are thrilled that Solugen has made a decision to be part of this community, and made a major investment in this community,” said Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes.

A program celebrating the groundbreaking of the new Bioforge Marshall plant was held Thursday afternoon at the Red Baron Arena. Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabati and Sean Hunt said the new Bioforge will take corn products from the Archer Daniels Midland plant in Marshall, and use them to make chemicals used in a variety of industries.

“We’re super excited to be building in the city of Marshall,” Hunt said. “We’re expecting to hit mechanical completion early next year … And what’s super exciting is that this project is really just the beginning.”

Chakrabarti said Solugen’s goal is to find a lower-carbon, sustainable way to produce chemicals.

“That’s where we put all of our focus, is figuring out how to decarbonize the chemicals industry,” he said.

Thursday’s groundbreaking celebration also brought state officials to Marshall, including Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Matt Varilek, and Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

“On behalf of the state of Minnesota and the governor, we’re so excited and want to congratulate everyone,” Varilek said. “We’re excited to be partners in this project as well, with an investment of $760,000 from our Job Creation Fund.”

Chakrabarti said Solugen had its beginnings from both medical and chemical engineering research that he and Hunt were doing in graduate school. Chakrabarti was studying an enzyme produced by pancreatic cancer, which could make the chemical hydrogen peroxide. At the same time, Hunt was at MIT, studying the production of hydrogen peroxide using metal catalysts.

“We started talking about what would the world look like if we married our two disciplines?” Chakrabarti said. Using enzymes to produce chemicals more efficiently would have a big impact on the environment.

“The chemicals industry touches everything,” Chakrabarti said. “But that impact has a consequence. The sector emits a staggering three billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, and contributes 5 to 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 30% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.”

Today, Solugen is a growing company with more than 200 engineers, scientists and businesspeople, Chakrabarti said.

“We actually make organic acids – think like, citric acid,” he said. Those acids are used for a variety of purposes, from beverages to water treatment chemicals and even in construction, he said.

Hunt and Chakrabarti said the Bioforge Marshall plant will use dextrose, a type of sugar produced by ADM, as a sustainable feedstock to produce chemicals.

Chakrabarti said Marshall was a good location for the Bioforge plant because it was close to the corn Solugen uses for feedstock, and to industrial customers.

“We looked at multiple different corn facilities and decided that Marshall was exactly where we wanted to be,” Chakrabarti said.

The site will have 50 to 60 employees once it’s running, but there will also be roughly 150 to 200 construction workers building the plant.

Hunt said Solugen technically broke ground for Bioforge Marshall in December.

“I’d say right now, we’ve got over half the plan under construction actively, offsite,” Hunt said. “We build our plan in multiple locations, modularly, in different fabrication shops. And when we’re ready to go, you’re going to see these modules kind of roll in.”

Hunt said Solugen is working on using enzymes to produce more types of chemicals and materials at its Houston plant.

“Every new product that we launch in Houston, we’re then going to turn around and launch at commercial scale here,” he said. “We really think that this could be the proving ground for what a sustainable renewable chemicals industry and a bio-economy looks like more broadly.”

The ADM plant in Marshall will ramp up its production of dextrose starting next year to help supply the Bioforge Marshall plant, said Mark Wirkus, vice president of sweeteners at ADM. There are also opportunities for further growth in the future.

“Marshall has always been a pillar of two things: agriculture and innovation. And this project will lean on both of those. It’ll bring new high-tech opportunities to this community, and it’ll add employment,” Wirkus said.

Varilek said Solugen’s project in Marshall fit well with statewide efforts to address sustainability and climate change. Greg Jaffe, senior adviser for the office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Solugen was also helping to build new markets and opportunities for farmers and rural communities.

“I would say that we are on the cusp of the domestic U.S. bio-economy taking off,” Jaffe said.

In 2021, bio-based products contributed more than $480 billion to the U.S. economy, and supported almost 4 million jobs, Jaffe said. Those figures didn’t include the impact of biofuels, he said.

Petersen told the Independent that the new Solugen plant was a good opportunity for Minnesota agriculture.

“I’m really excited about any time we can add value to our crop,” he said. “What they’re going to do here is add value, and working with ADM is even better. You’re just getting a win-win — I always hate using cliches, but it is a win-win for our farmers in the area.”

He said the timing of the partnership also came as more investment was going into developing biologically-based products, both at the state and national levels.


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