Fake Meat as Cleantech Investment
Apr03

Fake Meat as Cleantech Investment

The New York Times today has a fascinating feature about a new crop of businesses developing better-tasting meat substitutes. According to the Times, Demand for meat alternatives is growing, fueled by trends as varied as increased vegetarianism and concerns over the impact of industrial-scale animal husbandry on the environment. The trend has also attracted a host of unlikely investors, including Biz Stone and Evan Williams of Twitter, Bill Gates and, most recently, Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong magnate. It goes on to say that the sustainability boon of veggie-based protein over animal protein has also attracted venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to the category. Since I write about cleantech start ups and food, I figure this is an interesting market niche to examine. But my first question reading the story was, would I eat this? That is not very analytical. The companies featured in the story are Beyond Meat, which makes a veggie protein chicken that apparently is indistinguishable from the real thing in a dish like chicken salad, Gardein, which makes products including – amazingly to me – fake fish, and Hampton Creek, a start up that has developed a versatile and healthy egg substitute made from Canadian yellow peas. Setting aside my selfish question of whether these products would appeal to me, a non-vegetarian, I’m going to try to set the stage for an analysis of the likely success of these ventures. The companies state they are hoping to attract mainstream eaters. That means they will have to score a win on the three most important qualities for mainstream grocery shoppers: 1) Taste 2) Cost 3) Convenience. The point of the Times story is that these up and comers are aiming to beat out today’s fake meat brands on taste and texture. Many fake meat products are easier to store and prepare than raw meat, so that’s a plus. That leaves cost – if they can sell the products for just a bit less than the real thing that would make a huge difference and would expand the market for fake meat. To get the costs down while they scale production, firms like Beyond Meat will first have to appeal to the early adopter/healthy eater/vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian who is willing to try something new. But while some shoppers may be swayed by sustainability claims, these technology-based firms will have to navigate the growing tide of shoppers of all types who eschew mystery products, high-tech food processing, and food additives such as colors, flavors, preservatives and even texturizers. Shoppers know that even natural flavoring additives may be chemically similar to MSG (particularly flavors derived from yeast). This crowd...

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The Biology in Green Chemistry
Mar12

The Biology in Green Chemistry

Yeast, bacteria, enzymes, proteins… may not be what immediately come to mind with the phrase Green Chemistry. But of the 93 teams that have won Presidential Green Chemistry Awards, 31 had technology that hinged on the use of biological processes or biobased inputs, point out the folks at the Biotechnology Industry Association. BIO has created a cheat sheet of sorts on the various bio-powered technologies behind past award winners, complete with summary blurbs and links to fuller descriptions. And it opens with the famous Twelve Steps, er, Twelve Principles of Green chemistry. One of my favorites is the 1999 discovery by researchers at Dow AgroSciences of Spinosad, a selective insecticide derived from a soil microbe. It is a very relevant organic pesticide used today. The fun detail, not in the blurb, is that the microbe was found in the environs of a rum distillery. Why a scientist was looking there, in the dirt, is a fun question. And more recently, a 2013 award went to Richard P. Wool of the University of Delaware who “has created several high-performance materials, such as adhesives and foams, using biobased feedstocks, including vegetable oils, chicken feathers, and flax.” These materials sound not-quite good enough to eat, but certainly quite good enough to sit on.    ...

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Big Growth Seen for Biobased Materials and Chemicals
Feb19

Big Growth Seen for Biobased Materials and Chemicals

Technologies for – and commercialization of – materials and chemicals made from a variety of biobased feedstocks “have reached an inflection point” and are poised to grow significantly over the next four years, according to the minds over at Lux Research. Research analyst Julia Allen says overall capacity will nearly double, reaching 13.2 metric tons in 2017.  Growth rates by segment vary but all are robust, spanning intermediate and specialty chemicals and polymers. The biggest percentage growth, and largest category of production, will be for intermediates like adipic acid and that old fashioned biobased product, lactic acid. The only fly in the punch mentioned in the press release (full report available to Lux clients) is that cellulosic feedstocks are likely to continue to grow  slowly. Corn starch and sugar cane will still dominate, and oily bio feestocks and waste gas will also play a role. Here’s a nice example of the biobased industry’s maturation. One of the larger biobased chemical intermediate companies is Myriant, a producer of succinic acid made from sugar. Today the company said it has supplied commercial quantities to downstream customer Oxea for use in production of pthalate-free plasticizers. Oxea is a large-ish intermediates company owned by Oman Oil Company. Applications for the plasticizer include food cling wraps, flooring, soft toys and adhesives & sealants. Of course, just because the industry as a whole is on surer footing and poised for growth, does not mean the same is true for individual companies. In fact, once the market is in a position to determine demand and pricing, we may see what business reporters politely call “consolidation.” For instance, Florida-based biobased specialty chemical company LS9 was recently bought by mainstream biodiesel fuel maker Renewable Energy Group for a not-huge price tag. And biobased plastics supplier Cereplast has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just this...

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Big Companies Binging on Microbes
Dec10

Big Companies Binging on Microbes

Microbes! They are tiny but powerful. And big companies are buying in – according to a wave of announcements that began late last week. Here are some highlights from my inbox. Fuels Amyris, which has long been talking about making biofuels – particularly diesel and jet fuel – from its biobased farnesene, will embark on a joint venture with French fuel company Total. Recently Amryis had pulled back from its fuel ambitions, but now it will move ahead with this 50/50 venture. Total is already an investor in Amyris and owns 18% of the firm’s commons stock. Where’s the microbe? Amyris uses engineered microbes to make farnesene from sugar. Agriculture Meanwhile, Monsanto and Novozymes will combine forces to develop and market biological crop products based on microbes. The deal includes a $300 million payment from Monsanto for access to Novozyme’s technology, which the firm has been building for the last seven years. Microbes have long been used as inoculates for nitrogen-fixing legume plants but in the last few years microbial products have been developed to help with phosophate uptake, to fight fungus and insects, and promote plant vigor and yield. Interestingly, Ag giant Monsanto only last year introduced a microbial platform. This deal sounds like a way to catch up. Biobased chemicals Some microbes can ferment gases and make desirable chemical intermediates. LanzaTech has been an innovator in this space so we’ll start with that company’s new deal with Evonik. The firms have a three-year research agreement to develop a route to biobased ingredients for specialty plastics. The feedstock will be synthesis gas (syngas) derived from waste. LanzaTech has already begun production at an earlier joint venture that produces ethanol from the industrial waste gases of a large steel mill in China. Invista is probably best known for its synthetic fibers business (think Lycra and Coolmax) but it also has a chemical intermediates business. And it now has a deal with the UK Center for Process Innovation to develop gas fermentation technologies for the production of industrial chemicals such as butadiene. The two are eying waste gas from industry as a feedstock. Rather than spin the work as a sustainability play, Invista says it may significantly improve the cost and availability of several chemicals and raw materials that are used to produce its products....

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Pyrolysis: the third way to biofuels
Nov11

Pyrolysis: the third way to biofuels

Imagine a giant pile of biomass – lets say wood chips for simplicity sake. And next to the wood chips is a big pile of money (likely from investors, whose patience for payback may vary). In a third pile is a group of job candidates: engineers, chemists & microbiologists. To get useful energy from the first pile of feedstocks requires careful consideration of all your piles. The wood chips can be burned, fermented, or – bear with me now – squeezed. Each approach requires different amounts of feedstock, cash up front, and expertise to get a particular type and amount of fuel or energy. C&EN’s own Craig Bettenhausen has taken a look at the benefits – and potential downsides – of squeezing the wood chips to make liquid fuels, specifically hydrocarbons that can be made into drop-in biofuels (the best kind!). Of course he doesn’t say “squeezing” – experts call it pyrolysis. Bettenhausen explains that the biomass is subjected to high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-free environment (imagining this is making me feel a little breathless and claustrophobic). Check out the free story to learn what happens next. Meanwhile a press release from our friends at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, nicely illustrates one way pyrolysis might pull ahead of other technologies (i.e., fermentation into ethanol or gasification into syngas). A group of Battelle engineers and scientists have built a mobile factory that can travel to the site of your big pile of wood chips and convert it into up to 130 gal of oily hydrocarbons per ton of chips per day. The little factory is installed on the flatbed trailer of an 18 wheeler. “This feature makes it ideal to access the woody biomass that is often left stranded in agricultural regions, far away from industrial facilities,” the press release notes. “It’s potentially a significant cost advantage over competing processes represented by large facilities that require shipment of the biomass from its home site.” Still, as Bettenhausen explains, pyrolysis – as it is being scaled up today – has not yet proven itself at scale or made profits for anyone. Stay...

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New Probe Aids Enzyme Mixology for Biofuels
Nov05

New Probe Aids Enzyme Mixology for Biofuels

What’s the difference between a bartender and a biofuels researcher? A bartender uses ethanol to make cocktails, while a biofuels researcher uses cocktails to make ethanol. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab have developed a probe to help create the most efficient cocktails for biofuels makers. A biofuel-making cocktail is a blend of enzymes that break down biomass (like corn stalks). And apparently the fungus Trichoderma reesei is a veritable Swiss Army knife of enzymes.  T.E., as we’ll call it, is a mesophilic soft-rot fungus which was famous in World War II as the stuff that chewed through military tents in the Pacific Theater. It contains 200 sugar molecule busting enzymes (glycoside hydrolases) including 10 that chomp cellulose and 16 that consume hemicellulose. This variety is helpful, because no single enzyme can profitably make ethanol from cellulose. To make biofuels, companies either make or purchase custom blends of enzymes that function at the needed pH, temperature, nutrient environment, and chemical conditions. Companies like Novozymes sell optimized blends of enzymes. But with PNNL’s probes, cocktail DIY’ers can get in on the action. Currently, enzyme assays only show the total mixture activity of all enzymes, not the activity of individual enzymes. But the activity-based probe method quickly identifies and quantifies the activity of individual enzymes in a mixture, allowing high throughput analysis with gel electrophoresis or LC-MS-based proteomics. The research showed that the different processing conditions had a significant impact on the activity of individual enzymes. Armed with this knowledge, an enzyme mixologist would be able to more quickly identify the best ingredients for their biofuels process. Reference [free download with registration at RSC]: Lindsey N. Anderson, David E. Culley, Beth A. Hofstad, Lacie M. Chauvigné-Hines, Erika M. Zink, Samuel O. Purvine, Richard D. Smith, Stephen J. Callister, Jon M. Magnuson and Aaron T. Wright, Activity-based protein profiling of secreted cellulolytic enzyme activity dynamics in Trichoderma reesei QM6a, NG14, and RUT-C30, Molecular BioSystems, Oct. 9, 2013, DOI:...

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