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Archive → April, 2011

Mitsubishi Chemical Partners for Bio-based Feedstocks

This week brings two announcements by two U.S. bio-based chemical intermediate firms that they will explore supply partnerships with Mitsubishi Chemical. First, BioAmber, a bio-based succinic acid firm said it signed an agreement to supply the chemical for Mitsubishi’s proprietary polybutylene succinate, a renewable, biodegradable polymer.

Bioamber's Biosuccinic Acid Production Plant in Pomacle, France. Credit: Bioamber

Secondly, start-up Genomatica, which makes biobased 1,4-butanediol  via fermentation by genetically modified microbes, has signed a broad memorandum of understanding that includes a possible joint venture to build  the first commercial plant in Asia for bio-BDO. The memo also includes a development collaboration for other chemicals that the two firms are both interested in, and notes that Mitsubishi has invested its own funds in the start-up.

The earlier press release focused on the possibility of lower-cost production using bio-based materials, but the Genomatica release quotes a Mitsubishi spokesperson giving a more nuanced version of why the company is pursuing the partnership:

“We respect and share Genomatica’s vision of the importance of sustainability for the chemical industry—and we recognize their achievements with C4 chemicals, which are strategic to us”, said Hiroaki Ishizuka, Representative Director of Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation. “Asia is the fastest-growing chemicals market in the world and we see great potential to deliver bio-based chemicals to this market as a growing complement to our current conventionally-sourced chemicals. We believe that a strategic partnership with Genomatica will provide market-leading economics and quality which will benefit both parties.”

Ramping Up Solar Manufacturing… with help from Intel

For one smallish solar manufacturer, having Walmart as a customer changes things a bit. Miasolé makes thin film copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) modules. Back in September, the company was named as one that would supply thin film technologies to Walmart for rooftop installations in stores in California and Arizona.

Miasolé plans to expand its CIGS manufacturing. Credit: Miasolé

CIGS have been around a while, but still have a very small market share compared to traditional crystalline silicon panels. And, as experts in the industry have pointed out to me, one need only read the name of the technology slowly to oneself to understand that the manufacturing requirements may be rather… complex.

With the Walmart order (which will go through leading  retail solar firm Solar City), Miasolé now plans to ramp up capacity to 150 MW by the end of 2011, triple its current abilities. So the company has brought in Intel, the computer chip maker, to help. Apparently Intel can do this cool thing where it makes a whole lot of exactly the same thing. They’ve named this competency the “Copy Exactly! methodology.”

Interestingly, in its own manufacturing efforts, Intel works closely with manufacturing equipment supplier Applied Materials, which once made a big move into supplying  thin-film solar makers but has significantly lessened its exposure to that market in recent years. That was back when thin film meant solar made with amorphous silicon.

For many years now, however, the leader in thin film manufacturing has been First Solar, which makes cadmium telluride cells (also being bought by Walmart). First Solar is now ramped up to 1 GW in annual production.

Miasolé says it is the only thin film solar firm to use what it characterizes as a low cost sputtering process for its materials deposition. Maybe Applied Materials will be dragged back into solar manufacturing  — and in a new way — if it gets involved in the project along with Intel.

Sustainable Packaging

It may harken to a more Victorian past, but I can’t help thinking of Mondays as laundry days. Modern-day laundry-doers – whether they do the chore on Monday or not – have at least two opportunities to decide how sustainably they want to clean their clothes.

Seventh Generation's new laundry bottle. Credit: Seventh Generation

First is the choice of laundry detergent – there are options including super-duper-concentrated, made with bio-based/renewable materials, free of dyes or fragrance, and cold water compatable. It’s important to realize, however, that the real sustainability choice comes later when and if consumers flip the wash dial to cold water.

But back to the suds. Seventh Generation has upped the ante in sustainable detergent with a new packaging scheme. Along with all of the above features, this detergent has a jug where the rigidity comes from a formed cardboard-like ”fiber bottle” which can be recycled with paper or composted. The liquid is inside a #4 recyclable plastic pouch. The lid? Like most plastic bottle lids, in many areas it is just trash.

The package claims to be made with 66% less plastic than a comparable product, however, the comparison is to a 100 oz bottle and not the 50 oz super concentrated Seventh Generation size. 

According to Gwynne Rogers of the Natural Marketing Institute (a market research firm) sustainable packaging does win over consumers. In a recent article, she points out that “more than three-quarters [of consumers] think products are over-packaged, and for some, that changes behavior. More than one-quarter says that when they see something over-packaged, they look for something else to buy. …In the U.S., the importance of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging has risen significantly (5-9% annually) since 2007.”

Cereplast's new bio-materials symbol

Another important signal that packaging sends is when it carries labels promoting the sustainability of the contents. For Earth Day, Cereplast, a maker of bio-based plastics, unveiled a design for a symbol that denotes products made from bio-based materials.

Laura Howard, a design student from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, won the firm’s design contest (and $25,000) with her winning entry. Keep an eye out for this symbol when you shop – products that carry it also likely contain some interesting chemistry.