Issue Date: December 3, 2012
New Group Gathers Biobased Chemical Boosters
The manufacture of chemicals from renewable sources is a nascent industry still overcoming challenges involving raw materials, efficient production, and customer adoption. Last month, a group of professionals representing a range of companies in the biobased materials supply chain met in Philadelphia. Their task was to explore how they could work together to overcome these challenges and expand the sector.
The gathering was the first meeting of a new organization called the Society for the Commercial Development of Industrial Biotechnology, or SCD-iBIO. The group is an affiliate of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, a trade group for batch chemical manufacturers. About 65 people attended the forum, according to Larry E. Drumm, executive director and cofounder of the group. A large portion of the attendees were also presenters, lending the event an intimate, roundtable-style atmosphere.
“We want this organization to be the right size for friendly sharing and exchange of information and ideas. It will present the business point of view focused on best practices for commercialization and market development,” Drumm said.
The initial meeting brought together executives from biobased chemical and fuels firms including Amyris, Chemtex, Genomatica, and Solazyme; chemical makers DSM, DuPont, and Eastman Chemical; and consumer-brand companies such as Kimberly-Clark and Sherwin-Williams.
The starting point for many renewable materials is sugar derived from food sources such as corn. That is likely to change, according to speakers on the opening panel. “First-generation sugars are a good feedstock source, but they won’t get us over the hump,” asserted Tim Brown, vice president of strategy for Renmatix. Renmatix uses supercritical water to obtain C5 and C6 sugars from nonfood biomass.
Chemtex, an engineering firm owned by Italy’s Mossi & Ghisolfi, is also pursuing cheap sugars from biomass. According to Kevin Gray, Chemtex’ vice president for biobased chemicals, the company’s Proesa technology can generate sugar at a marginal cost of 10 cents per lb. That price point is the basis for the firm’s plan to produce ethanol at $1.50 per gal. It also gained Chemtex a partnership with biobased chemical producer Genomatica, which has licensed the Proesa technology to produce sugar as a butanediol feedstock.
Sugar was not the only feedstock under discussion, however. Carl Wolf, manager of business development at LanzaTech, pointed out that his firm’s gas fermentation methods will allow it to use a variety of carbon sources, including industrial waste gases and gasified biomass. “We have a whole library of microbes” that expand the family of feedstocks to CO2 and acetic acid, he said.
Other possible inputs discussed at the meeting include formic acid, glycerin, waste vegetable oils, purpose-grown energy crops, lignin, and even methane. “It’s important to be flexible,” Renmatix’ Brown advised. “We looked at over 50 feedstocks, but we will focus on ones where a supply chain already exists, such as woody biomass for pulp and paper and sugarcane bagasse.”
Making a lot of any given product—regardless of feedstock—can bring its own set of challenges, said those who reported from the front lines of production scale-up. “There will be things that will not work,” said Michael R. Ladisch, chief technology officer for cellulosic fuels firm Mascoma. “You won’t know what they will be. So you must save capital to improve and reinvest in your process.”
“You don’t want to go too fast,” advised Peter Boynton, chief commercial officer at Amyris, which has had to back away from initial plans to make the biobased chemical farnesene at three contract facilities because of a poor cost structure. Boynton also called the firm’s early plan to make diesel from farnesene “a mistake.”
Algal oil producer Solazyme brought a similar story to the meeting. The company’s potential to produce fuels had been an early draw for investors, but for now it is pacing its market entries to match its capital sources, said Joseph Zwillinger, director of marketing for fuels and chemicals. The company is targeting high-value markets in skin care and nutraceuticals while it expands its first large plant in Brazil.
It will take longer than most firms expect to gain customer acceptance of biobased products, warned speakers in the second half of the forum. Attendees from consumer-brand companies stressed that biobased ingredients should bring a performance bonus, and it helps if they have a cost advantage over petroleum. For now, biobased components are limited in the quantity used and to certain niche brands.
Altuglas, an Arkema business, has started making a version of its Plexiglas polymethyl methacrylate sheet with 25–50% polylactic acid polymer provided by NatureWorks. Although polylactic acid has been criticized for certain performance shortcomings, the blended product performs similarly to regular Plexiglas and has a lower carbon footprint, said Carmen Rodriguez, Altuglas international business manager.
Kimberly-Clark, marketer of the Huggies brand of baby diapers, is interested in biopolymers for their potential to diversify its supply of critical raw materials, said Ryan McEneany, a senior process engineer at the firm.
In 2008, Kimberly-Clark introduced Huggies Nature Made Gold, a biodegradable diaper constructed with an absorbent liner made with polylactic acid. Created in response to a waste-reduction program by the South Korean government, the diapers cost 30% more to manufacture than regular Huggies. Moreover, polylactic acid is challenging to work with, McEneany said.
The reality checks from downstream customers are an important part of the value of SCD-iBIO, Chemtex’ Gray said. “The typical consumer won’t know Genomatica or Chemtex. But our customers are brand owners like the groups that were at the forum. They will provide the market pull that has to filter all the way back to the raw material suppliers, even back to the farmers.”
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