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Guest editorial: Chemical comeback stories we like

by Michael McCoy
February 12, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 6


This is a guest editorial by Michael McCoy, C&EN’s executive editor for business and policy.

Everyone likes a good comeback story. Whether it’s an athlete having a stellar season after what seemed to be a sunset year or an actor giving a standout performance after a string of duds, people who turn in a surprising Act 2 are an inspiration.

Comeback stories about businesses are perhaps not as inspiring, but they can have larger implications. This week’s cover story is about the resurgence of cellulosic ethanol after at least two rounds of business and technological failure. And one of our feature stories is about the chemical industry’s tentative embrace of e-commerce, 20 years after neglecting to adopt it.

One of my first stories for C&EN, back in 1998, was about the cellulosic ethanol industry, then in its infancy. At the time, the US Department of Energy was providing grants to companies that were trying to make ethanol out of cellulosic waste as part of a quest to spur the domestic production of fuel. None of those projects came to fruition.

Cellulosic ethanol got a second wind in the 2010s, when DuPont and other big companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build several plants in the US Midwest. Rather than reach energy self-​sufficiency, the goal was to make a low-carbon fuel. As C&EN associate editor Craig Bettenhausen reports on page 20, these US projects also failed, but a handful of firms elsewhere in the world are making a go of cellulosic ethanol by learning from the mistakes of others.

The fuel market is still in these firms’ sights, but thanks to government and corporate decarbonization efforts, the companies have added chemical raw materials to their pursuits. After all, ethanol is one dehydration step from ethylene and all the products that can be derived from that building-block chemical.

For many of the people involved, helping stanch global warming is the ultimate purpose of making cellulosic ethanol. As Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, told Bettenhausen, “After many fits and starts, it does feel like we are on the precipice of some significant breakthroughs.”

Bringing e-commerce to chemical sales is a less lofty goal, but it’s one that is within reach. I recall when C&EN benefited from an earlier e-commerce push. In the first few years of the century, our pages were flush with advertisements from companies like CheMatch, Fobchemicals, and e-Chemicals—all trying to convert the chemical industry to online buying and selling. This was during the dot-com bubble, when Amazon was still mostly selling books, and firms such as were ascendant.

It turned out that we weren’t ready to buy pet food online. The chemical industry wasn’t ready either, and most of those online companies folded—along with the advertising in C&EN. Now, as senior editor Rick Mullin reports on page 17, a new breed of e-commerce company is trying again. This time, the firms seem to be gaining traction, though the traditional culture of sales calls and golf outings isn’t going away.

Sports comebacks can be short lived—just look at Tom Brady. But unlike people, industries live on and can get many chances for a new life.

I wish the e-commerce companies well; I’m sure buying chemicals with the click of a mouse instead of a phone call and purchase order will make many corporate jobs easier. But I’m really rooting for the cellulosic ethanol folks and for all those companies—including the chemists who work for them—attempting to decarbonize the chemical industry. The stakes are high, and the potential environmental consequences of another failed comeback are grave indeed.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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