A couple of years from now, when you pop a piece of Dentyne or Trident chewing gum in your mouth, you may well be tasting a sweetener made from wood and agricultural byproducts using a technology developed by North Vancouver’s S2G Biochemicals Inc.
Perhaps the best endorsement of the technology is that Vancouver-based Fortress Global Enterprises Inc. recently bought up eight-year-old S2G in a $2.5 million deal.
Initially, S2G was focused primarily on refining bio-glycols – an alternative to the glycols derived from oil and gas – but it has now entered what could be an even more valuable market: making sweeteners for chewing gum.
According to Mark Kirby, CEO of S2G, which is now a fully owned subsidiary of the Fortress Advanced Bioproducts division, Fortress is developing a whole new strategy in wood processing. “Fortress wants to turn pulp mills into biorefineries,” he says.
S2G Biochem had inked a major partnership deal with Mondel¯ez International, the multinational food, beverage and confectionery company that owns brands such as Nabisco, Cadbury, Toblerone and Oreo. Mondel¯ez also owns the chewing gum brands Dentyne, Trident, Chiclets and Stride.
Xylitol is one of a handful of sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, used as an alternative to sugar in chewing gum and mints.
Typically extracted from hardwoods or corncobs, xylitol has one-third the calories of regular sugar and prevents tooth decay – two reasons why companies like Mondel¯ez prefer to use it rather than other sweeteners, like sorbitol.
The problem is that it’s expensive to make, but S2G has developed a process for making xylitol more cost-effectively.
Xylitol is not a product that S2G even considered making until Mondel¯ez approached the company, says Kirby. “We thought it was a pretty small market. We never attributed much weight to it. We were focused on glycols.
“It wasn’t until they [Mondel¯ez] came to us and said, ‘We have a problem.’ And there’s nothing like having a customer that has a problem to help pull new technology forward.”
The market for glycols is huge – about $30 billion annually, although bio-glycol makers like S2G are competing with Big Oil in that space. Xylitol is a smaller market – US$600 million to US$700 million annually – but there is less competition.
“In the xylitol space, we will have a significant impact,” Kirby says.
Working with Mondel¯ez, S2G tweaked its technology in order to co-produce xylitol as part of its glycol production.
They came up with a process that is more efficient because it can extract more xylitol from a given feedstock, which can include residue from hardwood trees, wheat straw and sugar cane husks.
“Whatever we don’t turn into xylitol, we then turn into glycols, instead of throwing it away,” Kirby explains. “That combination gives you – per tonne of input feedstock – a lot more value of your end products.”
Fortress Global intends to construct a demonstration plant to produce xylitol at its Fortress Specialty Cellulose (FSC) mill in Quebec, utilizing the proprietary technologies and expertise developed by S2G and Mondel¯ez.
The process could eventually be used at B.C. pulp mills and worldwide, Kirby says.
The Quebec demonstration plant will use sugars extracted from hemicellulose, which is a residue from the FSC mill, to produce xylitol.
The demonstration plant is expected to start operation in 2020 and have a production capacity of up to 2,000 tonnes per year of xylitol.
Fortress intends to build an approximately $150 million full-scale plant following successful completion of the Quebec demonstration project.
“We believe that the production of xylitol will further optimize the utilization of our wood fibre,” says Chadwick Wasilenkoff, president and CEO of Fortress Global.