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Archive → March, 2010

Appear in C&EN, Get Presidential Visit?

Back in September I wrote about battery material company Celgard. Today the firm put out a press release saying that President Obama would be stopping by for a visit this Friday, April 2. Coincidence?

Truth be told, it was not C&EN that launched Celgard‘s 15 minutes of fame. At the time of publication, the firm had already scored almost $50 million in DOE grant money AND a visit from agency head Steven Chu. Celgard makes battery separators for lithium ion batteries here in the good ol’ USA (Charlotte, NC to be precise).

Presumably the visit will have something to do with green jobs, but it seems the White House is waiting until the actual visit to put out its own press release.

What Did Farmers Do Before Roundup?

According to the USDA, in 2009, 91% of soybeans acres planted in the U.S. were planted with seed genetically modified for herbicide tolerance, along with 68% of corn acres. The herbicide-tolerant trait is usually Monsanto’s Roundup Ready. Clearly, Roundup Ready traits are well-loved by U.S. farmers.

I’ve spent approximately 0% of my life on a farm so during my trip to Iowa for the USDA/DOJ workshop on possible anticompetitive business practices in agriculture, I felt a little undereducated on some basic facts, including, what did farmers do before they could spray their fields with Roundup?

USDA scientist studies Giant Ragweed

Dairy farmer Paul Rozwadowski from Stanley, Wisconsin helped explain the world before Roundup Ready to me. Rozwadowski plants corn to feed to his dairy cows, and says since his main goal is not to maximize corn production, and he’s happy with the output of his acres, he uses conventional seed. So he controls weeds in the conventional way. He relies on the help of a local agronomist who specializes in weed control and is familiar with the particular qualities of the land in Stanley – the soil, rainfall, temperatures, etc. This professional will visit Rozwadowski’s fields and suggest combinations of herbicides and application methods specific to the particular weeds he finds, and the stage of growth of the corn plant.

When Rozwadowski’s neighbors use Roundup Ready seed, in contrast, they don’t need experts and they don’t need to worry about the type of weed (Roundup is a wide-ranging herbicide for broadleaf weeds) or their crop’s lifecycle. They just spray. This simplifies things.

Minnesota farmer Fred Dauer, who plants soy and corn, along with wheat, oats, alfalfa, peas and sweat corn, also lives without genetically modified seeds. He is also a seed dealer, and says his customers are aghast that he does not rely on Roundup Ready traits. He’s confident that after 34 years of farming he knows how to get the most out of his acres. He pays $130 a bag for seed, while Monsanto’s triple stack (three-trait) seed sells for $400 a bag.  ”I still get top bushels per acre with 1/4 the price for seed. But to other farmers, using non-GM seeds seems risky. The stacked traits are like insurance, even in a high-producing county like Redwood.”

Meanwhile, the weed-controlling agronomists better stick around. Rozwadowski points out his neighbors are having to increase the amount of Roundup spraying because one application is no longer enough to kill the weeds. It turns out that some common weeds are developing resistance to Roundup, including the dreaded giant ragweed.

In Iowa, a Look at Agro Firms’ Business Practices

In today’s issue of C&EN, I offer my eyewitness account of the first in a series of U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture public workshops examining possible anti-competitive business practices in agriculture.

As we’ve reported in previous issues, DuPont has been in a protracted legal battle with rival firm Monsanto over Monsanto’s gene trait patents and license restrictions. Monsanto is only nominally a chemical company these days (it still makes Roundup herbicide), while chemical firms like DuPont, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta have all entered the genetically modified seed market in a big way. Court decisions as well as government regulations are likely to have a big impact on how GM traits are commercialized.

In recent years,  Monsanto’s  business practices have attracted a great deal of negative publicity. It was singled out for criticism in 2009′s popular documentary film Food, Inc. Back in 2008, Vanity Fair published a long feature titled Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear that must have given the firm’s executives serious heartburn.

Continue reading →

Wacker: handling the waste stream

Good morning from Munich!

I was invited to spend some time at Wacker, and yesterday we went on a plant tour of the firm’s production site in Burghausen, about an hour outside of Munich. The site is very large –  about 2.3 square kilometers, and almost 10,000 people work there. At the site, Wacker makes polysilicon wafers for the semiconductor industry as well as pure polysilicon for solar modules, among other products like silicones and polymers.

The four main input raw materials for the site are metallurgical silicon, methanol, ethylene and rock salt. One of the more detailed stops of the plant tour was the area where the waste is handled.

Compared to the size of the plant, there did not appear to be a great deal of waste to dispose of. The main reason is that Burghausen is a very integrated site; waste from one process is used as input to another. A small area held a number of plastic and metal drums, all labeled with the specific type of waste (the facility handles solid, liquid and gas wastes – gas comes through a pipe system). Wacker tracks each container of waste from its generation point to its disposal. Nothing is lost.

The waste is incinerated, along with the container which gets chopped up into tiny pieces. All the incineration gases are trapped and scrubbed. Any rocks or metal slag resulting from the burn is stored in a landfill and later the metal is recovered and recycled. Steam heat from the incineration is used to turn a turbine and contribute power to the plant. The gases from the incineration are run through a catalytic scrubber, and the resulting waste stream is monitored on a half-hour average basis with data tracked by a third party company that reports to Germany’s environmental regulator. Every year, Wacker has to publish a public report about its emissions.

Other than a little steam coming from the top of an exhaust tower, there was no other sign of any molecules leaving the facility.

Longing for Venture Capital

This item was contributed by my C&EN colleague Marc Reisch

Startup bio-based chemical producers in the U.S. are having a difficult time snagging the funds they need to propel their businesses forward, says Brent Erickson, executive vice president of U.S. trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Speaking at a meeting of the education group Société de Chimie Industrielle in New York City on March 24, Erickson said that before the economic slowdown, bio-based chemical startup firms could access funding from the venture capital community, but lately that money source has dried up.

U.S. government loan guarantees meant to fill the gap as part of the economic stimulus package aren’t helping, Erickson noted. Instead, under rules now in place, the guarantees are going to wind and solar energy start-ups that can show they have contracts to supply power to customers over a defined contract period. But startup bio-based chemical producers are losing out, Erickson said. They don’t generally operate like utilities and so they don’t sign 20-year supply agreements.

No immediate fix for the funding dilemma appears to be in sight. “A recovery of the venture capital community would be a help,” Erickson said.

Genomatica Raises $15 million

Bio-based chemical start-up Genomatica announced today that it has raised $15 million in a third-round of venture funding, led by new investor TPG Biotech. Genomatica will use the money to construct a demonstration-scale (about 30,000 liters a year) facility to make 1,4 butanediol (BDO). BDO is used to make high-performance polymers, solvents and fine chemicals for use in clothing, cars and electronics.

Bio-based – and so-called sustainable chemical firms – are grabbing some of the spotlight from their more well-publicized renewable fuels cousins. Proponents point out that chemical feedstocks bring in higher margins than fuels, and say that there is a ready market of eager chemical company customers that are looking to source their operations in a way that avoids swings in petroleum prices.

Christophe Schilling, Genomatica’s CEO, says that while the company works to design and construct the demo facility, it will also continue working on the throughput of the BDO made by its sugar-consuming organism. He tells C&EN the microbial workforce can make BDO at 99.7% purity and says by the time the demo facility is ready to house the process, that Genomatica will have a technology to make the feedstock cost competitive to the petroleum-based alternative.

Cleantech: Patent, Publications, and Money

Two cleantech start-ups recently covered by C&EN have milestones to report. And another is appearing at the ACS Spring National Meeting this week.

Cellulosic ethanol firm Qteros, with technology from the UMass lab of microbiologist Susan Leschine now has a patent on its Q microbe. The microbe can break down the polysaccharides in plant cellulose into simple sugars and then ferment the sugars into ethanol. The company says this is a money and time saver, as it reduces the number of processing steps and eliminates the need for separate enzymes. C&EN recently wrote about Qteros’ new CEO John McCarthy, and his efforts to scale-up the business (subscription required).

And the New York Times DealBook blog has reported that low-carbon cement start-up Calera will get $15 million in funding from Peabody Energy, a coal company. Calera claims to have the ability to bubble CO2 emissions from power plants into high-mineral content groundwater to create a cement-like product. According to the company, the process locks in the CO2 from the power plant and also saves on CO2 emissions that would normally be used to create the cement. You can read about Calera and three other low-CO2 cement firms in C&EN (subscription required).

Out in San Francisco, agricultural biotech firm Agrivida, which is developing specialized non-food crops that can be turned into chemicals and fuels, will be presenting research at the ACS meeting. Agrivida will explain how it has developed a “platform [that] allows for expression of cell wall-hydrolyzing enzymes within a plant’s growing cell wall without the occurrence of detrimental phenotypes that may impact yield.” Basically, like Qteros, the trick is to get a head start on conversion from cellulose by picking the right biological systems. My colleague Sue Morrissey mentioned Agrivida in her story about recent ARPA-E funding awardees.

If any ACS meeting attendees have a chance to see Agrivida’s presentation, I would love to hear from you.

As much as I love San Francisco, I am writing this post from Munich, Germany, where I am preparing to visit Wacker Chemie this week. You’ll hear more about this soon.

Happy World Water Day

It seems rather auspicious that the first day of this blog is also World Water Day (thanks United Nations!).

Anyone who has done much traveling has probably found himself or herself with a new appreciation of being able to drink and wash with abundant clean water right from the tap. But on March 22nd, we are reminded of the 2.5 billion citizens of the world who do not have regular access to clean water and sanitation.

More and more academics are studying the intersection between water use and world trade. In the developed world, many of the products we use everyday represent a vast investment of clean water. I wrote about the consumer’s water footprint back in the fall of 2008.

The opportunities in clean water are like catnip these days for technology start-ups. One theme that I mentioned in this cleantech water piece is the tight coupling between water and energy resources. To get clean water requires energy – especially in places like the Middle East where water has to be desalinated. On the other hand, many schemes for renewable energy (think about growing crops for energy) require boatloads of water. Can we increase our supplies of energy and clean water at the same time or will one always come at the expense of the other?

Keep an eye out this week for announcements about companies that are making commitments to increase the world’s access to clean water. Nalco, a firm I featured in a cover story about water, has announced a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to develop best practices to protect and conserve water, and will provide financial support to the Global Water Roundtable.

Welcome to Cleantech Chemistry

Hello there! Thanks for stopping by.

Welcome to C&EN’s Cleantech Chemistry blog. With your help, I will use this forum to explore the science and business of the many new industries that meet at the intersection of innovation, chemistry, and sustainability.

What types of emerging green technologies do you find most intriguing? Troubling? If you’d like to see this blog address particular topics, please leave a note in the comments section.

Though I often write about purely technology-driven cleantech start-ups for the magazine, since C&EN spans the full chemical enterprise, I will also look into the ways traditional chemical firms are navigating the new “green” markets.

Today’s issue of C&EN includes a profile of FMC (subscription required), a chemical company founded way back in the 1920s. I was able to speak at length with the firm’s new CEO, Pierre Brondeau. I noticed two sustainability “mini case studies” happening at the company. The first is a common risk-mitigation story. The second one shows the other side: a new market driven by consumer demand for sustainable products.

FMC makes the lion’s share of its earnings from agricultural chemicals including pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Governments around the world frequently prohibit sale or use of particular agricultural products due to risk to human health or the environment. For example, the EPA is revisiting the issue of possible health effects of Atrazine, marketed by Syngenta. (see C&EN story – subscription required).

Brondeau says that a large part of FMC’s agricultural portfolio is given over to insuring that there are replacements available and ready to go if any of its products have to be taken off the shelf. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, he says that FMC is weighing an evolution towards green agricultural products.

But its FMC’s algae business that shows the other side of the coin. Currently the company derives biopolymer ingredients like carrageenan and alginates from seaweed for food and pharmaceutical applications. But the firm now has a small toehold in the personal care business and is hoping that it will become a high growth area. Companies like Avon, L’Oreal, and Procter and Gamble are interested in using sustainably harvested algal oil in their products in response to demand from consumers for plant-derived ingredients.

In a C&EN cover story about research at L’Oreal, Lisa Jarvis explored the firm’s sustainability efforts.

FMC is not the only algae firm hoping to move into the high margin personal care business. Solazyme recently announced that it will work with Unilever to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products.

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