Biobased chemicals show promise as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing the comforts of modern life. But the industry needs a few high-profile successes to unlock investment dollars, according to industry insiders at the third annual meeting of the Alternative Fuels & Chemicals Coalition, which took place Nov. 12–14 near Washington, DC.
“Once you have one big success, people know that capital can be returned,” said John Bissel, CEO of Origin Materials, at a lunch plenary session. “Poor operators and poor technologies in the space are a detriment to us all. They hurt the whole industry.”
Origin went public in 2021 with a plan to makep -xylene and other chemical building blocks from lignocellulose, but, seeking such a success, it shifted its near-term focus to biofuels this year.
On Nov. 20, Origin announced that it is cutting 30% of its staff. The firm says in a press release that it is restructuring to “execute priority initiatives representing high-margin, near-term opportunities, while deferring some research programs with strong, but longer-term economic impacts.”
Despite such struggles, industry executives are optimistic. Rusty Pittman, vice president for business development at the nutritional ingredient maker DMC Biotechnologies, said at the meeting that just a few years ago, industrial biotechnology was profitable only for high-margin pharmaceuticals. Today, it works for some specialty chemicals and even high-end commodities, he said. “The toolbox is well-developed now, and it can pay out.”
DMC uses fermentation and genetic engineering, but companies based on conventional chemical conversions are also confident. The start-up Viridis Chemical, for example, has been shipping railcars of ethyl acetate, which it makes catalytically from corn ethanol in Nebraska, since April 2022.
“I love the idea of using rugby analogies, and I describe that it’s like a scrum,” said Damien Perriman, vice president for specialty products at the biotech firm Genomatica, which has won investments from the personal care product makers Unilever, Kao, and L’Oréal. “You’ve got a lot of bodies packed against one another, and this thing does not move quickly. It moves in small steps with consistent pressure. And as long as you don’t collapse, you will eventually move.”