Category → Agriculture
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 is likely to be close to a third of shoppers by the time these firms hit the mainstream. Foodies who already shun “highly processed” foods may be wary of high-tech meat substitutes.
What’s more, shoppers who choose fake meat for health reasons only may regress to “sustainably raised” animal products as our nutritional understanding of the effects of various types of fats grows more sophisticated.
But one fact in the article stood out – the current leader in fake meat, MorningStar Farms, has a whopping 60% of the market. This strongly suggests that there is room for a number of new entrants to take a healthy bite of that share. When it comes to food (as opposed to, say, renewable energy) people are very picky, and they like choices.
As for me, I say, bring on the “chicken” wings, the no-egg mayo, the “meat crumbles” chili. I’ll try anything once.
Speaking of picky eaters who are concerned about sustainability, check out this hilarious clip from the IFT show Portlandia:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s going to be 6 million gallons. That is how much cellulosic biofuel EPA’s research (crystal ball?) shows will be produced in the U.S. this year, and what fuel blenders, who live by the Renewable Fuels Standard, will have to put in their product.
EPA’s final rule on this question was published today. And the text includes a remarkable figure: “From 2007 through the second quarter of 2012 over $3.4 billion was invested in advanced biofuel production companies by venture capitalists alone.”
Egads. Anyway, for at least one more year, cellulosic biofuel will be the black-footed ferret of fuel types, which is to say, exceedingly rare. By comparison there will be over 16 billion gal of regular biofuel (like the stuff made from corn and soybeans) this year.
The 6 million figure comes from output from two sources – the largest is Kior’s Columbus, MS plant, which is projected to make between 5 or 6 million gal of gasoline and diesel from woody biomass using a special kind of catalytic cracking technology. The remainder will be produced by Ineos Bio (see the below post).
I note that the Kior facility’s output is not ethanol and so nicely side-steps the issue of the “blend-wall”, which affects ethanol producers. For 2014, however, the fact that most advanced biofuels are ethanol will cause the EPA some RFS problems. EPA is now saying that there will be changes:
EPA does not currently foresee a scenario in which the market could consume enough ethanol sold in blends greater than E10, and/or produce sufficient volumes of non-ethanol biofuels to meet the volumes of total renewable fuel and advanced biofuel as required by statute for 2014. Therefore, EPA anticipates that in the 2014 proposed rule we will propose adjustments to the 2014 volume requirements, including the advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel categories.
We expect that in preparing the 2014 proposed rule, EPA will estimate the available supply of cellulosic biofuel and advanced biofuel volumes, assess the ethanol blendwall and current infrastructure and market-based limitations to the consumption of ethanol in gasoline-ethanol blends above E10, and then propose to establish volume requirements that are reasonably attainable in light of these considerations and others as appropriate