Hidden Chemistry at Solar Biggie BrightSource
Jun09

Hidden Chemistry at Solar Biggie BrightSource

We don't have too many rules here in C&EN blogville, but we do try to maintain a chemistry connection.  I was worried that would be at risk if I were to post about BrightSource Energy, a mega solar tech firm that has filed for a $250 million IPO. To generate energy from the sun, BrightSource puts thousands of big mirrors in the desert that track the sun and focus light on a tower with a boiler full of water. The steam generated cranks a turbine to create electricity. It sounds like what a technology firm would think up if someone forgot to invite a chemist or chemical engineer to the concept meeting.  [Note that in contrast, other solar thermal companies use nifty heat-transfer fluids like biphenyl and diphenyl oxide, as described by my colleague Alex Tullo.] But there are at least two innovative uses of chemistry in the BrightSource system, one is basic CRC handbook stuff and one is rather mysterious. To extend the hours during which the water can be turned into steam, BrightSource is working to store some of the sun's heat  in a blend of molten nitrate salts (sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate). To save you the Googling, the melting point of sodium nitrate is 308 C and potassium nitrate is 334 C. For some reason this nice detail is in the firm's S1 filing but I did not see it on the website. The more mysterious chemistry is alluded to on the company's website. As you can imagine, the boiler tower has to withstand some unusual conditions. But worry not, because, "The boiler is designed to withstand the rigors of the daily cycling required in a solar power plant over the course of its lifetime, and is treated with a proprietary solar-absorptive coating to ensure that maximum solar energy is absorbed in the steam. [emphasis mine]. Hmmmmm.... I wonder what is in that coating? Tell me what you...

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Raising money for algae
Aug15

Raising money for algae

This week two algae-to-fuels firms took different pathways to raise new capital while they work out how to commericialize their technologies. The hundreds of start-ups looking to cash in on the little green organisms are likely watching closely. San Francisco-based Solazyme has raised an impressive $52 million in its fourth round of venture capital funding. Unfortunately for the algae industry, the round does not signify that new investors are flocking to this corner of cleantech – there was only one new investor, Morgan Stanley, participating. Oil company Chevron has stayed on as a strategic investor through its venture capital arm. Solazyme takes an unusual approach to the science* of growing algae for commercial oils – it grows microalgae in the dark in large fermentation vessels. Instead of feeding photosynthetic algae sunlight and CO2, the firm fattens its microalgae on cellulosic materials. Then it processes the algae to extract the oil. Currently, the firm is selling the oil into the cosmetics and food industries, but it still sees its largest market as biofuels. PetroAlgae, a less well-known start-up, has filed for a $200 million IPO. The firm plans to license its technology to grow photosynthetic algae in flexible plastic bags. Unlike the big bucks raised by Solazyme, however, industry watchers suspect this play will flop, possibly souring the investment community on the whole algae idea. The timing of PetroAlgae’s IPO does seem premature. I wrote about the nascent algae industrya year and a half ago, at the time, company leaders were working to bring down the engineering and processing costs to make algal oil. At the time, costs would need to come down by about a factor of ten – which has not likely happened since then. The soft-bodied cells are attractive for biofuel production because they don’t contain tough lignin and hemicellulose that are hard to break down into fuel feedstocks. But instead, algae need to be fed and housed – at considerable overhead. And then the oil must be separated from the algae cells as well as from the water the algae grow in. Cleantech investing by venture capitalists, especially the ones who are already backing cleantech firms, seems to be rolling along despite the lackluster economy. But a busted IPO could cast a shadow over the many firms still working on their algal engineering. * Congratulations, intrepid keyword hunters! You've found one of the six for the...

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Codexis – An example of “integrated innovation”?
Apr27

Codexis – An example of “integrated innovation”?

I'm at the Lux Research Executive Summit today. You can follow my twitter stream from the conference. Lux Research Director Michael Holman (who also happens to be a PhD chemist) just gave a presentation discussing the shortcomings of the venture capital model for bringing innovations in physical sciences to market (especially in materials science, energy, and the environment). VC investments worked well for tech companies like Google, which raised a mere $25 million of venture funds before going public. Another problem is that scientists with lab-discovered innovations do not always pick the right markets and applications for their discoveries. Holman suggests that physical sciences start-ups would be better off partnering in their early stages with the venture and partnership arms of larger corporations. Corporate partners have a clear understanding about where new technologies are most needed, and they know a great deal about the potential market sizes. Still, most early-stage start-ups are very concerned about being taken over or co-opted by corporations that might not care about the smaller firm's health and possible future. Holman suggests that agreements that include particular financial incentives can help smooth the way. One company that Holman says successfully partnered with corporate ventures is Codexis, a biocatalysis firm targeting renewable fuels, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Codexis went public last week and raised $78 million, a strong result in a fragile economy. (Though Codexis originally hoped to raise a cool $100 million). Though the firm did raise some venture money, it partnered early and widely with firms like Chevron, GE, Pfizer, and Shell. Holman says firms like Codexis benefit from the insights of corporate partners and can even speed up their time to market for their products or to exits like...

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Amyris files for $100 million IPO
Apr21

Amyris files for $100 million IPO

While I enjoyed a few days of R&R, my colleague Alex Tullo reported on the news that Amyris has filed for an IPO. Amyris makes genetically engineered bacteria. The designer microbes eat cane sugar and produce various chemical or fuel precursors. The company has already gained some fame for helping to develop a biotech route to artemisinic acid, a precursor for the antimalaria compound artemisinin. Now Amyris says it will be making farnesene, which can be converted to diesel and several commercial products. Amyris may have been embolded to file its S1 after Codexis' similar move back in January. Codexis is a biotech firm focused on ezymes for biofuel, pharma, and chemicals production. Both firms are seeking to raise $100 million in...

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