Cleantech start-up Liquid Light is hitting the road to market its catalytic technology that takes in CO2 to make chemicals. C&EN science reporter Mitch Jacoby included the company in his July 1 feature about methods to use electrochemistry to convert CO2 to valuable products.
Earlier this week, the company announced that it now has a lab scale prototype and is targeting production of ethylene glycol (MEG – with the M for “mono”). MEG is commonly known to consumers as antifreeze, but the bulk of it is used as an intermediate chemical in the production of polyester and PET resins. Shell Chemicals is a leader in MEG production with its own OMEGA catalytic process.
C&EN spoke with Liquid Light’s CEO Kyle Teamey while he was at the airport. Teamey is calling on potential licensees who may be interested in investing in the firm’s next step: a larger, real-world installation to further demonstrate the technology. The firm currently has backing from VantagePoint Capital Partners, BP Ventures, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, and Osage University Partners.
The following is a lightly edited Q&A.
CC: What sources and types of CO2 streams are you targeting?
KT: The idea is to use industrial point sources of CO2, ideally one that is located in an existing chemical production area, petrochemical plant, or refinery site. In terms of cost structure, we assume the cost that is associated with using conventional carbon capture technology. Estimates from those technology providers have led us to assume $80 per ton, though it can range wildly between $5-150. We want pipeline grade CO2, relatively pure but not completely squeaky clean.
Still, we have a stable catalyst for making a lot of different chemicals, there are chemicals that can be made with very impure CO2, that includes SOx, NOx, oxygen, CO, and mercury. We’re not going to hook the thing up to a coal fire power plant, but there are opportunities out there.
CC: What would be the source of hydrogen?
KT: Customers would be able to use the lowest cost hydrogen available on market, like from dereforming of methane, or unconventional ones like water electrolysis. Ultimately we want to provide technology for customers to reach whatever goals they have – they could even set up at a remote site to use CO2.
CC: How did you come to lead this effort at Liquid Light?
KT: I was an entrepreneur in residence with a venture capital fund – I came in with the intent on starting this company. I’m more like a utility infielder than a pinch hitter.
CC: Who are you speaking with now to advance the technology, and what kind of reception are you getting as a tech start-up?
KT:There is still a lot of interest from the petrochemical industry in new carbon feedstocks. Particularly something, in the case of CO2, that is low cost. With a captive industrial point source, there is no price volatility of that input.
You can configure the process in such a way that you significantly reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturer, to help hit economic and environmental goals simultaneously. Most manufacturers look at this from an economic standpoint.We have a lot of people excited about the MEG process, other groups are interested in other chemicals aside from MEG. That’s why I’m at the airport this morning.
CC: How big is your lab prototype and what scale are you ultimately targeting?
KT: It’s coffee-table sized. The prototype weighs a lot. Ultimately we would go to world-scale size for the product we are making. With the electrochemical technology, you scale up by stacking. You can make smaller amounts of specialty chemicals or build out for larger market chemicals like MEG.
CC: What is it like to be involved at a start-up at this point in the process?
KT: The opportunity to bring a new chemical feedstock online is lots of fun – there is a lot of excitement. It is still a relatively early-stage company, but from a job perspective, I’ve found nothing is more satisfying than taking something from a concept to a reality. It has been really exciting to watch these things move into beaker scale a few years ago and then to lab scale. And now I can’t wait to get to the next scale.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech in Indonesia early this week warning about failure to act against climate change attracted a lot of media attention.
Several news outlets, while covering Kerry’s remarks, stated that Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China. Both the New York Times and NPR’s News Hour reported this startling claim. It was not part of the Secretary’s statement.
And that’s a good thing, because it appears to be quite wrong. According to data released in October 2013 from the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, Indonesia’s contribution of greenhouse gas is more comparable to that of Italy than to the U.S. or China.
Even when including land-use changes, a stringent measure that significantly increases Indonesia’s output, the archipelago emits fewer tons of GHG than the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, India, Japan, Germany, Canada, UK, Mexico, and Australia.
So where does the “third-largest” factoid come from, then? From what I can tell, this was an estimate made by the UN back in 2005, shortly after the country ratified the Kyoto protocol. It is not clear how accurate that figure ever was. It’s true that Indonesia is still ranked fairly high considering that it is not a developed country, but in its defense, it is the fourth most populous nation on earth.
Another contributing factor to this claim is likely the many reports about deforestation and other actions in the country to convert land to agricultural uses, such as for palm oil plantations. These land use changes do make a huge contribution to emissions. Concerns about land conversion have driven demand for certified sustainable palm oil.
Still, if we’re going to call out specific countries for their overly-large contributions to climate change, let’s at least get our facts straight.
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 week.
This dispatch from the American Cleaning Institute show is a guest post by Mike McCoy. Thanks Mike!
John Monks is moving to Montana.
That’s one of several changes precipitated by an impending round of funding for Rivertop Renewables, a biobased chemicals company headquartered in Missoula, Mont.
Monks has been Rivertop’s vice president of business development since May 2013. He came to the startup following stints at two larger industrial biotech firms, Genencor and DSM.
Monks and his wife now live in the Chicago area, but the pending infusion of venture capital will put Rivertop on solid financial footing, he says, and prepare it for life as a going commercial operation. Monks needs to be in Missoula to help make it happen.
Rivertop produces chemicals from biomass. What separates it from the firms Monks used to work for is that the conversion is carried out not by fermentation but via a chemical synthesis, in this case a carbohydrate oxidation developed by Donald E. Kiely, a University of Montana emeritus chemistry professor.
Glucaric acid made from glucose is Rivertop’s first product. Monks was at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last week to promote the chemical as a raw material for the detergents industry.
Rivertop says glucaric acid is a chelating agent that works almost as well as sodium tripolyphosphate did in laundry detergents and automatic dishwasher detergents. Phosphates were legislated out of U.S. laundry detergents decades ago and out of dishwasher detergents in 2010.
Detergent makers have come up with phosphate replacements, but they tend to be expensive or otherwise flawed. Monks says manufacturers are receptive to the idea of an efficacious and cost-effective alternative.
At present, Rivertop’s glucaric acid is being toll-produced by DTI, a contract manufacturer in Danville, Va., that can turn out about 8 million lb of the chemical per year. Although Monks won’t disclose more about the financing until it is completely nailed down in the next month or two, he does say the additional cash will allow output to increase further. Moreover, it should set Rivertop on a path to build its own commercial-scale glucaric acid facility, likely in cooperation with a partner.
Another thing the cash will do is allow Rivertop to double its workforce in Missoula from the present staff of 18. Monks is looking forward to his move to Montana, but he acknowledges that the location might not appeal to everyone. “Flying in and out of Missoula isn’t the easiest thing to do,” he says.
Where I live, I have to pay for each bag of household waste picked up by the trash man. Each bag gets a sticker, and every so often I purchase a sheet of stickers for a not inconsiderable amount of money.
Luckily, I recycle and compost, and so my actual trash output is minimal.
Still, whatever volume of garbage I produce is a liability on the household balance sheet. Meanwhile, in the biobased/renewables economy, any source of unused carbon can be an asset if handled properly. And so I’m a bit surprised that I did not take note of one important cleantech project that came online in 2013: Abengoa‘s municipal solid waste-to-ethanol plant in Salamanca, Spain.
Thanks go to Jim Lane from Biofuels Digest for describing the facility in his Bioeconomy Achievement Awards post. In my defense, I have heard of and followed the other projects that made his list.
The biofuel facility was inaugurated in June – and judging from the press release I imagine that Abengoa workers are busy adjusting it and scaling it up. It has an eventual capacity to take in 25,000 tons of municipal solid waste and produce about 400,000 gal of ethanol per year. That is a great deal of ethanol – much closer in output to a Midwestern corn ethanol plant than any advanced biofuel plant I’ve come across.
The secondary benefit of course, besides fuel, is that the amount of waste is reduced by 80%, with only the remainder going to a landfill.
In addition to scale, the other striking feature of the plant is that it uses a fermentation and enzymatic hydrolysis process to get at the carbon inside the cellulose and hemicellulose fraction of waste. Other waste to fuels plants (like Enerkem’s in Alberta) use more physical/chemical processes such as gasification or pyrolysis and inorganic catalysts.
Generally the stated benefits of the thermo-chemical routes are that all carbon-based inputs (i.e., old tires, plastics – you name it) are converted. But whether this distinction is important is questionable. For example, even gasification projects require upfront sorting and shredding of trash.
Perhaps someday when I put out my trash, rather than paying for the privilege, I’ll get paid instead.
This has been a big season for biobased chemicals firm Genomatica. In late November, BASF announced that it used the company’s engineered microbe fermentation technology to scale up renewable production of 1,4 butanediol (BDO). And earlier this week, Genomatica announced a new partnership with Brazil’s Braskem to begin manufacture of biobased butadiene, starting with a pilot plant.
“We’re tremendously excited,” said Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling yesterday, in a chat with Cleantech Chemistry. “We’re positioning ourselves to get to this point – for many years we’ve viewed ourselves as the partner for the chemical industry when it comes to using biotechnology as a way to make chemicals. Not just for BDO or butadiene but for a broad range of chemicals.”
But we at the blog have noticed that these days, news like this just does not meet the same level of excitement that it would have back in say, 2010.
“It really reflects the state of cleantech now – people are struggling with ‘where did all the enthusiasm and energy go?’” says Mark Bunger, an analyst at Lux Research. “It is a natural part of how technology evolves. Initially there is a lot of hype, then you see a trough of disillusionment, followed by a plateau of interest.”
Bunger says all technologies tend to follow this pattern first identified by IT consultancy Gartner. It is called the hype cycle. Certainly, the last two years have been trough-like in the excitement level. After a certain number of years pass, when a company does prove that its technology works, it may be met with a bit of a shrug.
To get out of the trough of disillusionment, according to the Gartner theory, requires surviving a shakeout where some technologies don’t prove themselves. Investments continue if the surviving firms show that early adopters are satisfied with the technology’s results. The two Genomatica news items show that the firm has likely passed this barrier.
To then climb the slope of enlightenment and get out of the trough, Genomatica will have to show more than one instance of the technology benefiting a large enterprise and commercialize second- and third-generation products. This is where Genomatica is heading with its partners.
The goal, in the end, is for mainstream adoption to take off (the Plateau of Productivity). Genomatica, and other producers of C4 chemicals, says that the shale gas boom will provide a timely market pull for their technologies. The reason? Petrochemical plants that use “light feedstocks” such as natural gas produce a much smaller ratio of C4 chemicals than facilities that use crude oil. We’ll find out in the next few years whether the tail-end of the biobased chemicals hype cycle will fit nicely with the peak of the shale gas hype cycle.
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.
The end of 2013 is shaping up to be merry for the solar industry. It’s been a tough few years – as European governments cut back on incentives, inventories of solar panels, cells, and even raw materials started to pile up. But all that is getting sorted out, and a bunch more positive news is starting to point to a happy 2014 and beyond.
Demand for solar in China, Japan, the U.S. and even Europe has been strong since the summer. The pull has been felt througout the supply chain, but is not likely to be so strong that solar will become more expensive for end-users.
One sad tale this year has been a trade war between the developed home countries of some solar makers (in Europe and the U.S.) and China. But it looks like the compromise that the EU and China reached in July will stick, says Bloomberg. Perhaps those discussions will serve as a model for U.S.-China relations.
Speaking of the U.S., In October, 12 new solar installations accounted for 504 MW or 72.1 percent of all new electricity capacity last month. For the year, solar’s share is more like 21%. The Earthtechling blog digs into numbers from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Solar companies are sending positive signals to investors – and company stock has been soaring, points out Dana Blankenhorn at The Street.
At Lux Research, analyst Ed Cahill is taking a longer view. He says that solar will become competitive with natural gas by 2025, or if gas prices are between $4.90 and $9.30 MMBtu, perhaps as early as 2020. Apparently natural gas is a helpmate to solar – because using both together “can accelerate adoption and increase intermittent renewable penetration without expensive infrastructure improvements.”
Cahill says solar will become broadly competitive across the globe and that solar system prices will fall to $1.20 per W, from $1.96 per W in 2030 as modules get more efficient. One trend from the past will continue to dog the solar industry – as countries (and in the U.S., states) change policies, the industry will continue to see ups and downs. [Here's a press release about the report, along with a map]
Cleantech Chemistry thanks C&EN colleague Marc Reisch for contributing this news about biobased chemicals.
M&G Chemicals, a unit of Italy’s Gruppo Mossi & Ghisolfi, plans to build a $500 million biorefinery in China to make ethanol and the polyester raw material mono-ethylene glycol from 1 million metric tons of biomass per year. The facility in Fuyang, Anhui Province, China, will be four times larger than M&G’s recently commissioned Crescentino, Italy-based biorefinery when it is open in 2015.
To be built in a joint venture with minority partner Guozhen Group, a Chinese energy and real estate conglomerate, the Fuyang refinery will use Proesa technology from Beta Renewables, a joint venture partly owned by M&G which is also a polyethylene terephthalate maker.
M&G’s CEO Marco Ghisolfi says the Fuyang refinery “is the first act of a green revolution that M&G Chemicals is bringing to the polyester chain to provide environmental sustainability.” The company’s entry into China will ultimately position it to supply PET to firms such as beverage maker Coca-Cola which have advanced the development of renewably-sourced bottles, among them Coke’s own “PlantBottle.”
Coke currently buys ethanol-based ethylene glycol from India Glycols to make a PET bottle that is nearly 30% biomass derived. To increase feedstock availability, last year Coke formed a partnership with India’s JBF Industries to build a 500,000 metric-ton-per-year bio-ethylene glycol plant in Brazil, also set to open in 2015.
While the JBF plant will use sugarcane and sugarcane-processing waste as feedstock, M&G’s China facility will be based on wheat straw and corn stover. So M&G’s plant has the added virtue of depending on a non-food feedstock source.
But the ethics of using one feedstock crop versus another, or of using biomass versus petrochemical feedstocks, might not matter if consumers don’t care. At the BioPlastek Forum, a conference held in June, Coke, Ford Motor, and yogurt makers Danone and Stonyfield Farm told bioplastic makers that most consumers are unwilling to pay higher costs for bioplastics (C&EN, July 15, page 18).
And while the large M&G and JBF plant may have the economies of scale to drive down bio-based PET costs, they’ll encounter headwinds from petrochemical-based ethylene glycol makers. Lux Research senior analyst Andrew Soare points to the spate of ethylene and derivatives plants planned in the U.S. based on low-cost natural gas. M&G itself, for instance, is building a 1 million metric-ton-per-year PET polymer plant in Corpus Christi, Texas.
However, M&G will be challenged to make cost competitive ethylene glycol in China given the competition expected from U.S. petrochemical producers, Soare says.
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.
From The CENtral Science Blogs
- Mar 7th, 2014By Rachel Pepling
- Mar 6th, 2014By Bethany Halford
- Mar 7th, 2014By Melody Bomgardner
- Jan 25th, 2014By David Kroll
- Feb 28th, 2014By Alex Tullo
- Feb 28th, 2014By Sarah Everts
- Feb 27th, 2014By Jyllian Kemsley
- Jan 26th, 2014By Rick Mullin
- Jan 26th, 2014By Glen Ernst