Category → Bio-based Chemicals
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.
Cleantech Chemistry dives into the #foodchem carnival this week!
This is a good time to get your Thanksgiving menu planning started. This time of year I use a lot of spices. Have you ever noticed how expensive they are? I’ve paid $14 for two vanilla pods. The problem with vanilla is that it comes from the seed pod of a kind of orchid. Having tried to grow orchids, well, let’s just say I can imagine this is not an easy crop. Also, vanilla is commonly grown in Madagascar. Not exactly a locavore treat.
I’ve had better luck with growing crocuses, but I’ve not grown my own saffron. Maybe I should, because saffron, which comes from the flower of the saffron crocus, sells for about $2,000 per kg.
Microbiologists and chemists are ready to come to the rescue of cooks (and food makers) who love spices but don’t want to break the bank. One start-up, based in Switzerland, is Evolva. Evolva plans to use biotechnology to make high value ingredients for health, wellness, and nutrition. Two of its first target products are vanilla and saffron.
So far, it’s been a rather quiet company, but its CEO, Neil Goldsmith, came over to Philadelphia this week to talk about the firm to attendees of the first gathering of SCD-iBIO. This group was formed to promote a strong value chain for biobased products in order to commercialize the output of industrial biotechnology.
In the context of the meeting, Goldsmith said the firm’s background in pharmaceuticals (the company started with ideas of supplying the drug market) means it is well positioned to deal in the regulated food industry. As a small company, Evolva has purposely targeted high-value, non-commodity products. Also a the meeting were Solazyme and Amyris. Both are larger and public biobased companies that are targeting the pricey wellness market (personal care and fragrances). Both firms had initially said they would target biofuels.
Evolva says flavor molecules like those in vanilla and saffron can be made much more cheaply by fermentation. Most vanilla-flavored foods are made with synthetic vanilla, a product called vanillin. But natural vanilla is a complex mixture of flavor molecules and Evolva says it can make more than just vanillin. In addition, using sugar as a feedstock helps in an industry looking to avoid synthetic ingredients derived from petroleum.
The stevia plant also contains a number of molecules that produce its characteristic sweetness. Stevia sweeteners, which are derived from the plant, are now a $300 million per year market. The sweeteners are commonly used in beverages, but are pricier than sugar, HFCS, and synthetic sweeteners.
Goldsmith pointed out that the best stevia molecules for use in sweetening beverages (without the characteristic bitter aftertaste of some stevia products) occur in very small amounts in the natural source (the plant). So Evolva plans to make those less-common molecules via fermentation. The implication is that this version of the biobased sweetener could also be made more cheaply than the plant-based version.
About making flavors and fragrances with microbes: Sweet Smell of Microbes
The cleantech industry is taking executives to some interesting places lately.
Earlier this month, renewable chemicals firm Rivertop Renewables, based in Missoula, Mont., named Michael J. Knauf as Chief Executive Officer. Mike Knauf is a 30-year veteran of the bioindustrial industry, having held executive level positions with Genencor and Codexis.
Rivertop makes chemical intermediates through oxidation of sugar feedstocks. Its first platform of products is based on glucaric acid. On Oct. 26, the company opened its new labs and semi-works facility in Missoula.
Cleantech Chemistry spoke with Knauf about his new job, and Rivertop’s future plans.
CC: What attracted you to Rivertop?
MJK: Rivertop is a startup with a promising future. Codexis had moved past start-up mode and was starting to form up as a company with products and services and a revenue line. This is a pre-revenue opportunity – it builds on a solid breakthrough technology and was built by a great group of people. It couldn’t be a better opportunity for someone like me – a seasoned – in Montana they might say, grizzled, veteran. It’s really a great fit. I’m hoping my skill set will be what this company needs to propel it forward beyond startup phase.
My mantra is always listen to your customer. We’re are in the process of developing our market strategy – we’ve been talking to customers to really understand their needs. This company’s technology was originally applied to a market pull; a company was looking for a unique polymer and our founder identified glucaric acid polymers to meet their need. Our platform product is glucaric acid and other sugar acids generally broaden the range of applications for the company. The fact that Rivertop was founded on a market need is the key.
CC: What was it like to move to Missoula from San Francisco?
MJK: It’s funny – on a personal note I grew up in a town almost exactly the same size as Missoula. You’ve heard of it – Green Bay Wisconsin, but now Green Bay is maybe three times the size of Missoula today. My wife and I grew up in the same town. We’re so excited to be part of this community. It has a great quality of life and lots of nature. The University of Montana is in Missoula and provides a tremendous amount of cultural richness you wouldn’t find in towns this size everywhere. It’s just plain beautiful. And no, we’re not worried about winter.
And the home we’ve purchased – well, there’s no stoplight between our home and the Rivertop offices and labs. When you’re from the Bay Area… that puts a big smile on my face.
CC: What are your plans for growth – production, product line, partners …?
MJK: So far, we’ve shipped product to a number of customers but we are not in full launch mode. We’ve been producing for customer testing. I’ve just started so I don’t have all the answers all right now. The plans are to continue with our product and market development. In some cases that will take us to partnerships and collaborations – with consumer product companies, chemical companies, and potential manufacturing partners too. We’re working on a detailed strategy that we will roll out when it’s formed up.
One aspect is different that I’m happy to talk about. When it comes to Rivertop versus other companies in the renewable chemicals space, our technology is based on chemistry rather than biology. The R&D timeline and manufacturing cost of capital is considerably less problematic. Biology takes time, chemistry is usually pretty quick. With biology you have to develop the microbe, along with all the aspects of fermentation and recovery of the product. Our chemical process development has been quick, and is well developed for a number of applications; it is a platform chemistry.
We’ll ultimately produce more than glucaric acid, though glucaric acid is a good example of an oxidized sugar with a number of promising applications. It was on the DOE’s original list of biomass derived chemical targets. It’s a platform chemical we can develop with our platform chemistry.
Our primary market opportunity for glucaric acid is the detergent market, which has many applications of interest to Rivertop. Glucaric acid-derived products have long been considered as potential builders for dish and laundry products. With product reformulations, such as to remove phosphates, the detergents can be made more sustainable and better performing – and that plays right into our strengths.
The other markets we are looking at begin with corrosion inhibition for deicing applications. That is an area the team found early on and is fairly far along, we are shipping product to transportation departments in the Mountain states, including Montana.
Right now this new guy says the sky’s the limit, but we have to focus on some particular opportunities.
It’s not too often that I get a press release with a New Zealand embargo time. Waste gas to fuels and chemicals firm LanzaTech got its start in New Zealand, but is currently headquartered in Illinois. Still, the company’s larger projects are all in Asia, and being on the opposite side of the world from Cleantech Chemistry blog HQ is not a problem for them.
Yesterday (which is today in New Zealand), LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren spoke to a conference of oil refiners in New Delhi. In her remarks, she announced that the firm has a new joint development agreement with Malaysia’s national oil company Petronas.
The two firms will work to produce chemicals from carbon dioxide – the first one being acetic acid. LanzaTech already has two facilities that make ethanol from CO. In all cases, the CO or CO2 comes from waste gases. LanzaTech’s proprietary microbes ferment the gas into various end products. The Petronas deal will get its CO2 from refinery off gases and natural gas wells.
Earlier this year, the venture arm of Petronas contributed to LanzaTech’s third round of venture funding. And it seems the two companies have been in cahoots ever since.
C&EN profiled LanzaTech this summer.
And there is another cleantech firm that aims to make acetic acid – Zeachem. Zeachem is building out its plant that will produce acetic acid – as well as ethanol – from hybrid poplar grown in Oregon.
Several days ago I received an e-mail from the press office (press person?) at the Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the time I looked at it, thought “hmm… interesting” and set it aside. Been thinking about it off and on since. The crux of the information was this graphic:
A few thoughts that came to mind immediately were 1) Wow, look what a monster recession did to our industrial energy consumption and 2) That brick-colored stripe is rather tall.
The other two categories of energy consumers aside from industry are residential (people at home), commercial (businesses) and transportation. In 2011, industry was responsible for over 30% of total energy consumption, according to the EIA. Transportation is approximately a similar amount, and residential and commercial users split the rest.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I reflected on basic chemicals’ place in the lifecycle of a finished good – maybe a shampoo, or a carpet or a car – and the chunk of energy use it represents. A branded goods manufacturer that does a lifecycle analysis – say to measure energy use or emissions – would no doubt zero in on chemical inputs as a large contributor to its overall footprint.
Of course, mining and agriculture have their own energy footprints, as shown in the graphic. Obtaining any raw material will bring energy baggage with it.
The graphic also reinforced a message that my C&EN colleague Alex Scott recently wrote about in the magazine. He attended an event in Brussels called the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit. In his report, he writes that chemical industry representatives were chided for their “business-as-usual model” and told that other industries, including customers of the chemical industry, were beginning a trek toward zero targets for things like oil use and CO2 emissions. Should someone hold a similar event in the U.S., this illustration might appear in the presentation.