Category → Biofuels
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 tuned.
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: 10.1039/c3mb70333a.
It sounds like something from a greenskeeper’s nightmare – certain folks have plans to grow algae and dandelions on purpose, and in large quantities.
Firstly, in the golf course-choked state of Florida, Algenol CEO Paul Woods is scouting a location for a $500 million algae-to-fuels plant. The company was founded and has been operating in the southern part of the state for years now. Its claim to fame is cheap ethanol made from cyanobacteria in a custom-designed bioreactor. Woods does not, as far as I know, have plans to re-purpose stagnant water traps for the purpose of growing his feedstock.
But Florida, though it is sunny and warm, might have missed out on this slimy opportunity. In recent months, Woods questioned the state’s commitment to biofuels. For example, Governor Rick Scott repealed a state law requiring 10% ethanol in gasoline. But now, according to Fort Myers ABC 7 News, the company has been persuaded to build in its home state – apparently the estimated 1,000 jobs was just the ticket to getting a warmer welcome. Algenol needs to be sited near a major CO2 source (i.e., factory or power plant emissions) and says potential partners have come forward.
Meanwhile, it’s called the Russian Dandelion, though it grows in Germany. This common lawn scourge is bringing about not curses, but praise, for its rubber producing capability. Tire makers are enthused about its white latex sap. The goo is expected to give the subtropical rubber tree a bit of competition. Making rubber from dandelions is not a new idea, but has been given new life by a project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.
Fraunhofer scientists, in a collaboration with folks from tire firm Continental are working on a production process for making tires from the dandelions. In addition to the manufacturing process, the researchers are also using DNA markers to grow new varieties of the plant with higher rubber yields.
The project sounds kind of cute but the researchers behind it are dead serious. The partners have already begun a pilot project and plans are afoot to move to industrial scale. According to them, the first prototype tires made from dandelion rubber will be tested on public roads over the next few years.
You can read an earlier post on the history of dandelion rubber here.
Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates), through a fund called Gates Ventures, is investing $15 million in advanced biofuels firm KiOR. Gates is not a huge cleantech investor generally (though he has backed other firms such as the young MIT spin-off Liquid Metal Battery). So it’s rather interesting that he’s decided to invest in KiOR, which is not at all an “early stage” tech firm – in fact, it is a public company.
Vinod Khosla, a tech pioneer who is much more well known as a cleantech investor with deep pockets, has committed to putting in another $85 million to KiOR in debt and stock. Khosla was instrumental in the founding of the company and has been an unusually loyal and generous benefactor.
With this $100 million infusion, KiOR says it will be able to build out its capacity-doubling project at its Columbus, Miss. facility (see Khosla, Kior Double Down).
If we go back in time a bit to the end of the second quarter, we see that KiOR had started shipping its drop-in fuels (gasoline, diesel, heating oil) made from wood. But the amount of production was behind schedule, and its cash position was delicate, to say the least. At the time, analysts suggested that the firm should bring in a corporate partner such as a refining company. But that’s not what happened.
It is clearly good news for KiOR that it has a few friends who are willing to keep dipping in to their own pockets to make sure its first facility can reach the point where it generates enough cash to fund operations – and presumably prove out that KiOR’s next commercial facility (planned for Natchez, Miss.) will be profitable.
And its only fair to note that the same analysts who suggested KiOR get an additional large investor are also very bullish on the company. So what is there to like about KiOR?
- KiOR has significantly increased uptime at the Columbus facility
- It has produced and shipped actual product
- Yields are rising
- Drop-in biofuel is considered a much more desirable product than ethanol
- KiOR’s technology can accommodate cheap feedstocks (the expansion will use waste railroad ties)
The main negative, in fact, was the near-term need for additional capital. And even back in August – before both recent investment announcements – analysts at Credit Suisse and Raymond James had an outperform rating on KiOR’s stock.
Does all of this mean that KiOR is a guaranteed win? No, of course not. But I find it interesting how far KiOR is poised to go with the help of a few true believers.
Elevance comes to the U.S.
Elevance is another cleantech firm that is expanding its commercial operations. The company makes specialty chemical intermediates – functionalized esters and the like – for use in downstream products for personal care, coatings, lubricants and additives. Its feedstock is vegetable oil, which it processes using olefin metathesis.
The company did not have an IPO, as KiOR did, but chose instead to raise private capital. Its first plant, in Gresik, Indonesia is a large one, at 180,000 metric tons per year. Elevance says that its output there is all spoken for, and it is now proceeding with plans to build a second plant, also in Natchez, Miss. That facility is expected to come online in 2016.
It’s official – Beta Renewables first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant is open in Crescentino, Italy. The roughly $200 million plant can take in up to 270,000 tons of biomass per year and produce 20 million gal of second-generation ethanol per year. Parent company Mossi & Ghisolfi put up the dough to build the facility without any government subsidies. It’s an unusual funding model, to say the least!
This project leads the first crop of cellulosic biofuels facilities to reach start-up. Beta Renewables, along with its sister firm, engineering company Chemtex, have put together a facility that produces sugars from cellulosic biomass and then ferments those sugars into ethanol.
The feedstock includes wheat straw and an energy crop called Arundo donax, or Giant Reed.
I just want to point out that this is the second blog post in a row discussing commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels facilities (see below for KiOR). Does this count as the official start of the cellulosic biofuels industry?
Just to have fun with a little bit of contrast, back in July, a ginormous first generation ethanol plant started up in Hull, UK. The Vivergo Fuels plant cost $448 million to build and will produce 110 million gal per year of ethanol. The feedstock? Wheat, which is grown in the UK for animal feed. The project is a joint venture between deep pocketed partners AB Sugar, BP, and DuPont Industrial Biosciences. Thanks to Ethanol Producer Magazine for the details.
When the second quarter ended, drop-in cellulosic biofuels maker KiOR was in the process of ramping up production at its first large-scale (eventually 13 million gal per year) plant in Columbus, Miss. The company told investors that it hoped to double the capacity at the Columbus location, at an estimated cost of $225 million.
The company had cash reserves of just under $12 million. But, it had one asset that is incredibly valuable – the backing of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Khosla has agreed to fork over $50 million – half of it likely to come from his own personal funds – to seed an investment strategy that may bring in other deep pocketed parties such as an industrial partner or traditional lender.
KiOR makes gasoline and diesel (not ethanol) from cellulosic feedstocks (wood) via fermentation. Khosla was there at the company’s beginning – he helped midwife it into a startup in 2007 and invested in it before – and now after – its IPO in June 2011. The company went public at $15 a share in its pre-production, pre-revenue era (it is now trading around $2.50).
With the Columbus plant, KiOR is in the very first crop of producers of cellulosic biofuels. Investors love that the company’s output is not subject to blend walls the way ethanol production is. But getting steady-state, high levels of output from a first-of-its-kind facility is pretty much unheard of in the second-gen biofuels industry.
And so KiOR is hoping it will produce 1 million gal this year, as it does the start-stop-fix-start thing. That’s why it is interesting that rather than hold out to generate revenue from Columbus I, KiOR plans to use what has been learned already to literally double down on its bet. Interestingly, part of the motivation to build the Columbus II plant is the availability of cheap railroad ties at that location.
In the press release Khosla (who owns a majority stake) stands by his company:
“While KiOR has faced normal start-up issues at the Columbus I facility, I believe that the Columbus I facility has proven that KiOR’s technology can meet and over time exceed the technology performance metrics of approximately 80 gallons per bone dry ton I expected for 2015, driving toward the ultimate goal of producing 92 gallons of hydrocarbon fuels (or over 150 gallons of ethanol equivalent) per bone dry ton of biomass, particularly given the Company’s continued progress in research and development. I believe that KiOR’s proprietary technology platform is substantially better, and can produce hydrocarbon fuels at lower cost, than any other currently visible biofuels fermentation technology, cellulosic or otherwise, that I am aware of. I expect that cash costs per gallon (excluding depreciation) on an energy content basis at the two Columbus facilities should be lower than today’s corn based ethanol. I also believe that KiOR’s cellulosic fuels, which have a higher per gallon energy content than ethanol and can integrate seamlessly into the existing hydrocarbon fuels infrastructure, will provide a biofuel alternative without blendwall issues that is more attractive than ethanol, considering both production costs and logistical efficiencies.”
That’s rather a lot of very specific declarations by the normally Zen-like master of Cleantech VC. But others also sound pretty darned enthused about the company. Stock analysts Pavel Molchanov at Raymond James and Edward Westlake of Credit Suisse both rate the stock as outperform though they acknowledge that investors are jittery.
Once Columbus I and then Columbus II are up and running, both analysts seem very comfortable with the company’s production cost structure. In the meanwhile, Molchanov says investors’ worries should be quieted by Khosla’s confidence.
“By pledging an additional $50 million – an anchor as KiOR finalizes its long-term financing package – Khosla guaranteed KiOR’s financial security for at least six more months, which should set jittery investors’ minds at ease. Khosla’s status as one of the nation’s wealthiest VC investors means that his (yet again reaffirmed) backing for KiOR is analogous to Elon Musk’s support for Tesla and SolarCity, which in the past, went through their own periods of facing a skeptical market.”
You can read more about Khosla’s long-term investing strategy in biofuels on the Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch blog. In addition, Jim Lane at Biofuels Digest writes about how difficult it is for outsiders – and even insiders – to understand the true status of a ramp-up like KiOR’s.
Biomass to fuels firm Cool Planet has raised $60 million from venture backers in its fourth round of funding. Until now, two things had made Cool Planet unique in the biomass space – it attracted investment from Google Ventures, and its business model calls for small-scale, modular biorefineries.
Since venture backing for cellulosic fuels start-ups has been negligible lately, Cool Planet’s $60 million fund raise gives it a third unusual quality.
In some ways, Cool Planet is a bit like Khosla-backed KiOR – it relies on specialty catalysts to transform biomass (i.e. wood chips, agriculture waste) into drop-in, gasoline-like biofuels rather than ethanol like in most cellulosic fuel plants.
But Cool Planet sequesters the untransformed bits of biomass into what it calls biochar, which can be used as a soil enhancement in agriculture. Cool Planet did not invent the idea of biochar (which is sort of like charcoal), nor did it invent the idea of using it to boost soil productivity (through water and nutrient retention). But the carbon sequestration that biochar represents allows the company to advertise its fuel as carbon negative.
It’s not yet clear if farmers would adopt Cool Planet’s output, however. In fact, the company’s website says it is actively seeking partnerships to get this particular ball rolling. From the outside it is not clear to what degree profitability hinges on the sale of biochar.
Having a modular biorefinery sounds like an attractive concept, considering the module could be placed where biomass exists in significant quantities but would not be profitable to ship to a distant, huge biorefinery. Still, these facilities are not tiny; each “station” would produce 10 million gal per year of biofuel. And Cleantech Chemistry has not yet determined how the company plans to get the fuel output from these distributed outposts transported to a point of sale.
Cool Planet’s fund raising will be used in part to finalize engineering design for its first commercial facility as well as capital for construction in the Port of Alexandria, La. The company says it will be in operation before the end of 2014.
In addition to Google, Cool Planet has backing from North Bridge Venture Partners, Shea Ventures, BP, Energy Technology Ventures, and Excelon.