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Cleantech Gains Wider Acceptance

by Marc S. Reisch
December 23, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 51

Credit: Novozymes
A cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino, Italy, which opened in October, uses Novozymes enzymes.
Photo of a cellulosic ethanol plant interior in Crescentino, Italy.
Credit: Novozymes
A cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino, Italy, which opened in October, uses Novozymes enzymes.


Cleantech Gains Wider Acceptance

This was a year in which established chemical makers gained greater confidence in so-called cleantech projects to make chemicals from plants rather than oil and gas.

For instance, BASF, the world’s biggest chemical company, licensed technology from Genomatica in May to make sugar-based 1,4-butanediol, a polyurethane intermediate. By December, BASF was producing commercial quantities of the material. In another instance, Evonik Industries signed a deal with OPX Biotechnologies to jointly develop specialty chemicals using OPX’s microbe engineering process.

However, the general public didn’t seem all that interested in the shift to biobased materials. At the BioPlastek Forum, a conference held in June, consumer product executives acknowledged that bioplastics align with their sustainability goals. But they also said the public hasn’t been especially receptive to bioplastic packaging that promises environmental benefits over petrochemicals.

Some big players backed out of cleantech projects because the economics didn’t make sense or the demand for cleantech materials hadn’t materialized. Exxon­Mobil and Synthetic Genomics, for instance, decided to scale back a four-year-old, $600 million project to develop biofuels derived from algae.

Dow Chemical sold its majority stake in the advanced lithium-ion battery maker Dow Kokam to one of three remaining owners. Owing to slow demand for electric vehicles, only a fraction of the one-year-old plant’s capacity was put on-line.

The year also saw its share of cleantech research alliances, scale-ups, and new ventures. Industrial biotechnology firm Amyris signed a multiyear agreement with International Flavors & Fragrances to develop fragrance ingredients made by microbes from sugar. Unilever began a research project with England’s University of Liverpool to develop renewable chemicals from biomass for use in its home and personal care products.

New ventures included an advanced ethanol plant to be built by fledgling biofuel firm Canergy in California’s Imperial Valley. The plant will derive ethanol from energy cane, a relative of sugarcane. Units of Mossi & Ghisolfi agreed to provide engineering and process technology for the project.

On its own, M&G detailed plans to build a $500 million biorefinery in China to make ethanol and the polyester raw material ethylene glycol from biomass. The facility, slated to open in 2015, will be four times larger than M&G’s recently commissioned biorefinery in Crescentino, Italy.

Among the most prominent projects opening this year was Elevance Renewable Sciences’ biorefinery in Gresik, Indonesia. The facility, which employs olefin metathesis, has the capacity to make 180,000 metric tons per year of biobased chemicals from palm oil.

The photovoltaic industry started the year beset by overcapacity and weak prices for both solar panels and polysilicon raw materials. But government incentives and low prices eventually contributed to an uptick in demand, particularly from customers in Japan, China, and the U.S.



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