Category → Bio-based Chemicals
Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system – technically a microbe – a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.
I spoke with Gevo’s CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.
“We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast,” Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.
When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.
Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains – for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.
I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.
This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.
The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.
This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.
I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.
I’m going to have to start posting more frequently. My last post was about solar firms going bankrupt in China and now my cleantech news is about how solar is set to rebound. Seems like something should have happened in between that post and this one.
Actually, a few biobased chemical deals were announced. Thanks BASF and Evonik!
Anyway – back to solar. Earlier this week, Lux Research (a rather skeptical gang generally) put out a summary of a new research report titled “Solar’s Great Recovery: Photovoltaics Reach $155 Billion Market in 2018.”
Actually, solar had a great 2012 – at last in the U.S. – but that was mainly due to installations of several large utility projects. The business of producing those solar modules had hit some major potholes. Around five years ago, solar demand was hindered by high prices – held up by shortages of key polysilicon raw material, but balanced by huge subsidies in Europe, especially in Spain and Germany. Then – in the nature of boom and bust cycles – the high prices prompted huge polysilicon capacity increases. Then prices fell, Europe cut subsides, the recession hit… and all that new capacity made solar prices tank and inventories piled up. Whew – what a tale.
In a fun new twist, according to Lux analyst Ed Cahill, the solar crisis will become a boon as record low prices boost demand. (And after that what will happen? Stay tuned).
The rise will take place as those cheaper installations (especially utility and commercial rooftop) become routine and spread into new markets. U.S., China, Japan, and India are expected to speed up installations. That will help to power (no pun intended) a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10.5% over the next three years.
A few other things might help – according to this New York Times article, the U.S. and Europe are both working to smooth over trade disputes with China. Regional pricing schemes may take the place of tariffs. China had been accused of exporting solar modules at prices less than the cost of production (a practice called “dumping”). China, in turn, accused polysilicon makers in the U.S. and Europe of doing the same thing.
All of this fun news is not likely to help revive solar module manufacturing in the U.S. or in Germany. But new technology might. My colleague Alex Scott flagged a news item from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Photovoltaics. Researchers there have tested a crystalline silicon solar cell with a 22% sunlight conversion efficiency. It is difficult to say how much a module made of these cells would convert, but a traditional module is normally around 15%.
The secret to the team’s work is a design that puts the metal contacts on the back layer of the cell, using a laser. While hanging out on the back of the cell, the material will not block light hitting the front of the cell. Ta-da! More electrons.
Cleantech fans: it is time to educate yourselves. Set aside for a moment your interest in wind energy, solar, bio-based chemicals, biofuels, and electric vehicles and read this week’s story about what the U.S. may do with its abundant natural gas.
Here are some things that the country can do with natural gas: it can make electricity, upgrade it to useful chemicals, use it as a transportation fuel, or export it. The U.S. has access to so much natural gas that it could do all four things. And do them all cheaply, and profitably compared to our trade partners.
At this point, even if you only use your knowledge about the promise of cleantech at cocktail parties, you should start to think about the impact of abundant natural gas on your favorite technologies.
My colleagues Jeff Johnson and Alex Tullo’s feature asks what effect DOE policies on liquefied natural gas exports might have on the chemical industry and the wider economy. The flip question – not addressed in the story — is what impact natural gas that stays in the U.S. will have on the competitiveness of renewable energy and materials innovations.
At the recent ARPA-E show, I saw energy technology that is seeking to take advantage of abundant natural gas – and the speakers at the conference were rather fixated on the topic. (see my story on the ARPA-E Show in this week’s issue). Alert readers will recognize which minority member of the Senate appears in both articles.
I hate to give away the ending of the natural gas story but (spoiler alert!) U.S. natural gas prices will stay low even if we ramp up exports. When I was in school and my class learned about the Panama Canal, one of my classmates couldn’t understand why engineers had to build locks to compensate for the different sea levels between the Pacific and Atlantic. Once you connected the two oceans, wouldn’t they level out? Well, no.
Similarly, there is a small aperture through which natural gas would escape U.S. borders via the export market. Liquification imposes a significant surcharge on every unit of gas, it costs a lot to build a plant to do it, the export hubs need to be brought online, and there is a backlog in approving facilities. But read the full story and get the full picture.
Cleantech Chemistry HQ got an interesting e-mail yesterday. It stated that Qteros, an industrial biotech start-up of yore, has resurfaced. The firm had officially closed down earlier this year “because of adverse market conditions.”
Qteros’ technology was – and is – based on what the founders call the Q microbe. This critter is a two-in-one biofactory. It chomps down on biomass and also ferments the sugars into ethanol. It seemed that the firm’s microbe was well regarded, but the path to commercialization was murky. Cleantech Chemistry earlier reported that the firm was regrouping and maybe looking for a buyer.
That buyer, it turned out, was to be three of the company’s original founders. The firm was a tech spin off of the U. of Mass. Amherst. Original COO – and now CEO – Stephan Rogers of Amherst says “Having examined all the research, we now see an immediate pathway to commercialization with the current technology. The company is going to pursue a new and different, less capital-intensive business model. Part of our strategy to quickly get to market is to partner with others who have deep experience in microbial research to help us jump-start the process.”
Also at Amherst and still on the company’s scientific advisory board is Susan Leschine, who discovered the Q microbe. Qteros’ connection to the school will remain very cozy, it appears from the press release. It seems that the developers will move in with fellow researchers and will not seek out their own lab or office space until sometime in mid 2013. So it may be a little while before we hear more about the road forward.
There is no other way to say it. This year has been a terrible one for cleantech firms hoping to access the public markets to fund commercialization. Investors seem to be allergic to the very idea of owning stock in a cleantech firm.
Cleantech Chemistry thinks that one might still squeak through before the end of the year – SolarCity just slashed its offering price and number of shares and may now raise $92 million in an upcoming IPO, down from an initial expectation of $151 million. New York Times Dealbook blog has the details. [Update: CC was correct - SolarCity is live and trading up]
SolarCity is not pushing some obscure technology – it buys industry standard solar panels, and leases them to residential homeowners. This business model has become a common way for homeowners to get around the high up-front costs involved in generating their own power.
Should SolarCity decide instead to withdraw its IPO, it will join a long list of cleantech firms that had second thoughts this year including BrightSource Energy (solar), Enerkem, Fulcrum Bioenergy, Coskata, Elevance, Genomatica (all biofuels and biochemicals), and Smith Electric Vehicles. (Hat tip to Cleantech Group for helping with the list).
The good news is that many of these firms are successfully raising money from private investors including venture capitalists, corporate partners, bankers, and the Federal Government (sometimes in combination as when a loan guarantee is offered from DOE or USDA).
Two firms did go public in 2012, though both raised less money than originally hoped. Ceres, a plant biotechnology company focusing on proprietary energy crops, and Enphase, a maker of a new type of solar inverter, clipped their wings a bit but made it out of the gate.
Moving to the New Year, the true effect of a lost year for IPOs may be mainly one of image. True believers will continue to invest in cleantech firms, but for the general investing public, it seems that the bloom is off the rose for pre-commercial companies in the sector. That means fewer stakeholders to help spread the risk of new technologies, and increasing competition to appeal to deep pocketed private investors such as chemical firms and oil and gas giants.
Switchgrass, miscanthus, hybrid poplar – these are just the first three plants I think of when I hear the term “energy crop.” But I heard of a new one a few weeks ago when I attended a conference (story fortcoming) about commercializing biobased chemicals and fuels. Let me introduce you to a very big “weed” called Arundo donax.
While most energy crops produce a few tons of dry biomass per acre, Arundo – a tall bamboo-like reed – can produce several. Like switchgrass, it is a perennial. Like Kudzu, however, it is self-propagating and possibly horribly invasive.
It looks like the huge plant (it’s a weed when it grows where it isn’t wanted, like in California), may become a lot more well-known in biofuels circles. Chemtex will use it, along with wheat straw, in its first commercial facility in Crescentino, Italy. This plant is already humming, and commercial ethanol production is expected to begin early next year.
Chemtex plans to construct another ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina. Through a USDA program intended to promote rural development through the cultivation of energy crops, the company was offered a $99 million loan guarantee to plant “high yielding energy grasses, including miscanthus and switchgrass.” According to a fascinating look at Arundo cultivation – and eradication – by the Associated Press, it looks like the giant weed may also be part of the mix.
Meanwhile, a much sweeter crop, a high-sugar variety of sorghum, may be edging its way into Brazil’s famous sugar-growing regions. Plant biotech firm Ceres, and agribusiness firm Syngenta plant to run test plots of hybrid sweet sorghum destined for ethanol production. The press release says that Brazil’s ethanol industry has created a shortage of sugar cane, and the country views sorghum as a strategic crop.
While Arundo would be harvested just for its biomass, sorghum is usually grown for its seed which is used in animal feed.
Starting soon, oil-producing algae will be replicating at B-horror-movie quantities. Imagine a lab coat-wearing scientist running into the street shouting “300,000 metric tons!” while scores of screaming people run by, pursued by a giant wave of green slime.
But be not worried, the algae in question will be safely confined to fermentation tanks thanks their overlords at Solazyme. And many of those tanks will be in Brazil (so the people would be screaming in Portuguese, I guess.)
Earlier this week, Solazyme says that it has agreed with its sugar-producing partner Bunge to increase the production capacity for algal oils from an original 100,000 metric ton amount to 300,000 metric tons. It seems from the press release that Bunge will have a hand in marketing the tailored oils to the edible oil market in Brazil.
If you happen to live in the U.S. and have a craving for oil derived from algae, you’ll be pleased to learn that another large blob will be coming to Clinton, Iowa, starting in early 2014. Solazyme and its little green workers plan to ooze into the idle Archer Daniels Midland plant formerly occupied by Metabolix’s bioplastics operation. The plant will start out making 20,000 metric tons, but aims to grow to 100,000 metric tons.