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Archive → August, 2010

Solutions Sought For Obtaining Rare Earths

Cleantech Chemistry readers should check out my colleague Mitch Jacoby’s fascinating look at the market for rare earth metals and oxides. The rare earths, he points out, are not necessarily rare, but they are difficult to economically mine and process.

And yet they are extraordinarily important in the making of technologies in the computer, electronics, transportation, energy, and defense industries. Many cleantech advances like windmills, hybrid cars, and compact fluorescent lights depend on the rare earths.

Though not technically “rare,” the rare earths are getting harder to source in countries outside of China, as China has the lion’s share of deposits and has a lock the on economic production of pure materials. In addition, China has been lowering export quotas to keep more of the rare earths at home.

Recently, W.R. Grace said it would add a rare earth surcharge to fluid catalytic cracking catalysts and additives for the petroleum refining industry, which shows that rare earths are also used in some older industries.

Some Carbon Credit Projects Looking Shaky

Late last week, the UN body that issues carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol said that it would take a closer look at the worthiness of several projects that have been cashing in by destroying the potent greenhouse gas HFC 23.

Back in 2008 I wrote about a Chinese project that Arkema is part of that is similar to the projects under review. To my knowledge, however, the Arkema effort has not been singled out.

Basically, HFC 23 is a waste gas made during the production of a refrigerant, HCFC 22. With the help of investors and technology experts in the developing world, factories in places like China, India, and South Korea can destroy this waste gas in exchange for carbon credits, which are worth real money, and are traded on a European exchange.

While no one disagrees that without some sort of financial reward, the waste gas would be released into the atmosphere (because the developing nations do not regulate HFC23 emissions), critics allege that companies are manufacturing the HCFC 22 in the maximum quantities allowed – more than the marketplace needs – in order to earn the valuable carbon credits.

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Oil Firms are Sweet on Cane-waste Ethanol

While biofuels promoters in the U.S. are wondering what the heck happened to the promise of cellulosic ethanol here, two big oil companies are taking their cellulosic show on the road to Brazil. The feedstock of interest there is what’s left of sugar cane after the sugar is squeezed out.

sugar cane

Sugar cane, minus the sugar, may still yield ethanol. Credit Shutterstock

Royal Dutch Shell has advanced its plans for a $12 billion joint venture with Brazilian sugar cane processor and ethanol producer Cosan. The main thrust will be making ethanol from sugar in the time-tested way (which Brazil began producing for transportation since the 70s and now uses for about half of its liquid fuel needs). But in among a raft of other assets, Shell will kick in its 16% share of recently IPO’d cellulosic ethanol firm Codexis.

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Mushroom-as-polymer Powers Packaging Business

Ecovative Design's filimentous fungi packaging material

The era of renewable packaging is upon us, but a few details remain to be worked out. For example, Frito-Lay has been making noise (while irritating snackers) with its very loud – but compostable – plant-based polylactic acid bag for Sun Chips. Meanwhile, a quieter innovation is growing near the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

Ecovative Design grows its EcoCradle packaging material by adding filamentous fungi to buckwheat hulls inside a plastic form. The result is a composite material that the company markets as a competitor to expanded polystyrene. If you’re having trouble picturing this, take a moment to view the video linked at the end of this post.

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Raising money for algae

Credit: Solazyme

This week two algae-to-fuels firms took different pathways to raise new capital while they work out how to commericialize their technologies. The hundreds of start-ups looking to cash in on the little green organisms are likely watching closely.

San Francisco-based Solazyme has raised an impressive $52 million in its fourth round of venture capital funding. Unfortunately for the algae industry, the round does not signify that new investors are flocking to this corner of cleantech – there was only one new investor, Morgan Stanley, participating. Oil company Chevron has stayed on as a strategic investor through its venture capital arm.

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