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Biobased Chemicals

Biobased chemical maker Green Biologics shuts down

Producer of fermentation-derived acetone and 1-butanol to close plant amid cash crunch

by Melody M. Bomgardner
July 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 28

This photo shows the inside of Green Biologics' acetone and 1-butanol plant in Minnesota.
Credit: Green Biologics
Green Biologics' plant in Little Falls, Minnesota, will close.

Green Biologics, a biobased chemical firm headquartered in the UK and with operations in the US, has run out of money and will wind down operations.

The company produces acetone and 1-butanol via fermentation at a modified ethanol plant in Little Falls, Minnesota. It made a splash last year, striking deals to sell the ingredients for name-brand nail polish remover and barbecue lighter fluid.

However, the firm’s board says it cannot secure the funding it needs to grow sales and increase manufacturing “to the point of cash break-even.” The wind down will result in layoffs of the Minnesota plant’s 50-plus workers.

Green Biologics developed a modified strain of a Clostridium microbe that can efficiently produce acetone and 1-butanol from sugar. It was not a new idea: major manufacturers made acetone, butanol, and ethanol with Clostridium until the 1960s, after which petrochemical processes predominated.

The company raised roughly $100 million in 2015 from investors keen on the market for renewable, biobased chemical ingredients for consumer products. But it was unlikely that small-volume fermentation-based production could compete with fossil-fuel versions on cost.

Indeed, that same year, another biobased 1-butanol firm, Cobalt Technologies, went bankrupt. Cobalt had raised venture funding in 2011 on hopes it would supply biobased jet fuel to the US Navy.

Meanwhile, Gevo, maker of a related chemical, isobutyl alcohol, continues to operate its own Minnesota fermentation plant. The publicly traded firm sells jet fuel to Virgin Australia, but it has yet to turn a profit.


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