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Amyris: Earnings with a scent of patchouli

I learned an interesting new detail while listening to an earnings call.  On Monday evening, bio-based chemicals maker Amyris listed a handful of collaborations that would kick in some revenues in 2012. Amyris makes bio-based farnesene from sugar via fermentation. New to my ears is a project with fragrance and flavor maker Firmenich to make patchouli oil.

Amyris has had agreements with both Firmenich and Givaudan for flavor and fragrance products based on farnesene raw materials, but this is the first time I’ve heard about a particular end target. Two things come to mind to connect Amyris to patchouli, and neither have to do with insense burning or the counterculture (though these may be the first thing one thinks of related to patchouli).

Patchouli scent comes from a bush, for now. Credit: Wikipedia (cc)

First, farnesene is one of a large family of chemical compounds that make up the sesquiterpenes. Various forms of farnesene contribute to smelly compounds made by plants and insects, and the E isomer of beta farnesene is a constitutent of essential oils. Compounds like essential oils and other volatiles are part of the arms race between plant and insect. Patchouli scent is made from the essential oils of a member of the mint family; various species of the genus  Pogostemon are cultivated in Asia and Africa for the fragrance.

Second, though you might not notice it, many personal care products as well as soaps and detergents have scents that include patchouli. And it is widely used in perfumery. But patchouli and other essential oils pose tricky supply chain problems for consumer product makers – natural and man-made disasters can signficantly disrupt supplies. In 2010, for example, a volcanic eruption in Java destroyed patchouli crops in Java. This suggests that a renewable, steady supply of the stuff might make for a solid, high-value marketplace for Amyris’ farnesene.

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