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Biobased Chemicals: Some growing pains

Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system – technically a microbe – a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.

I spoke with Gevo’s CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.

“We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast,” Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.

When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.

Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains – for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.

Optimists at the BIO Show

I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.

This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.

The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.

This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.

I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.

20130618-064241.jpg

The Gut(microbe)less Gribble – Biofuel Hero?

Behold the Gribble – a true gutless wonder. The Gribble (pictured here) is a marine wood-boring creature of around 2 millimeters in size. Scientists at the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have been spending quality time with the Gribble because of its exceptional innards.

The Gribble lives in the sea and eats wood. Image: Laura Michie, University of Portsmouth

The Gribble lives in the sea and eats wood. Image: Laura Michie, University of Portsmouth

The tiny animal eats wood that finds its way into the sea. The wood can come from mangrove swamps or wash into estuaries from land. Gribbles, also called ship borers, have also been known to chow on wooden sailing vessels (including, rather famously, those of the Columbus voyages). “I’m sure they’ve taken down a few pirate ships, too” says Simon J McQueen-Mason a BBSRC researcher and materials biology professor at the University of York.

Most critters that eat wood or other lignocellulose plant material rely on symbiotic relationships with a diverse population of gut microbes – called the microbiome – to break down the tough-to-digest meal. When news reports suggest that pandas may hold the key to biofuels breakthroughs because they can live on tough bamboo, it’s really the microbes, and the enzymes made by the microbes, that are of interest.

(You can read a C&EN cover story about pandas, microbiomes and biofuels )

But the Gribble has no microbiome. And it doesn’t have the squishy, absorptive digestive system that most animals have. In fact, it digests its meals of wood in a sterile, hard-sided chamber in its hind gut. McQueen-Mason likens the environment to “a steel container you might use in an industrial lab.”

Instead of microbial helpers, the gribble has a separate organ where it produces the key enzyme itself. Termites do not do this (they have microbes). The gribble “must use quite aggressive chemistry; the enzyme is so harsh that it would kill any microbes” that might otherwise occupy the space, McQueen-Mason says.

The research team found the mystery organ and looked at the genes expressed there. Many of them encoded instructions for making what is called GH7 cellulase. This is a family of enzymes that are normally found in wood-degrading fungi. “These cellulases are abundant but were never reported in an animal before,” McQueen-Mason notes. “We were able to express the genes in a lab fungus and describe the properties.”

They also used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of the enzyme and show how it binds cellulose chains and breaks them into small sugar molecules.

The GH7 cellulase, an enzyme made by the Gribble, breaks down cellulose into simpler sugars.

The GH7 cellulase, an enzyme made by the Gribble, breaks down cellulose into simpler sugars.

The Gribble’s enzyme appears to be very rugged and long-lasting, which is a good quality for an enzyme that might be used in an industrial setting to make biofuels from wood or straw, McQueen-Mason points out. It works very well in highly saline conditions and may also function well in ionic liquids. The use of salt water and ionic liquids for biofuels processing may cut down on the use of expensive, precious fresh water. And like a true catalyst, the enzyme may be reusable.
You can see a video of the Gribble  – which I highly recommend – it’s kind of cute.

For more on the enzyme, check out the journal paper: ‘Structural characterization of the first marine animal Family 7 cellobiohydrolase suggests a mechanism of cellulase salt tolerance’ www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1301502110.

IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change

Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.

When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.

But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.

(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)

IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:

1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)

It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants

Never has such a small government payout generated such a busy PR reaction. Late last weeek – and very quietly – the Defense Department awarded three biofuels firms $16 million to craft plans for biorefineries that would produce fuels meeting military specifications.

Jim Lane at Biofuels Digest has been tracking this development closely and he points out that “A coalition of Advanced Biofuels Association, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airlines for America, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Security Project, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the National Farmers Union and Operation Free was swift to applaud the DoD.”

Great Green Fleet

U.S. Navy’s Great Green Fleet. In July 2012 it ran on a 50/50 biofuel and petroleum blend.

There are two main reasons why these tiny grants (each requires matching funds from the contracting companies) are fairly big news. One is that military spending on biofuels is a very touchy subject in Congress and there were some doubts about whether the program would move forward in this time of austerity and sequestration.

Secondly, U.S. airlines (and those around the world) are extremely keen to see the development of drop-in biobased jet fuel. To have the military join them on the demand side may make the difference between getting the stuff and not getting the stuff.

You can read C&EN’s exploration of bio-based jet fuel efforts. My colleague Andrea Widener wrote about House members’ attempts to block military spending on biofuels.

It is important to note that the funding comes out of the Defense Production Act Title II program and was not, in the end, successfully blocked. The program also would contain funds for a phase II portion of the program though money would have to be appropriated from the FY2013 budget.

In lieu of a press release (the DoD did not issue one), here are further program details that I received from a DoD spokesman.

There were three awards totaling $16.0M in government funds, which will be matched by $17.4M in private sector funds for Phase I of the project.

The first awardee is Emerald Biofuels LLC, which is located in Golf, IL – a northern suburb of Chicago. For this project, Emerald has agreed to match $5.4M in government funding with $6.4M of their own. Second, we have Natures BioReserve LLC of South Sioux City, Nebraska which will match $6.0M in government funding with $6.2M of company funds. The third awardee is Fulcrum Brighton Biofuels of Pleasanton, CA which will receive $4.7M in government funding and match that with $4.7M of their own funds.

Phase I of the project involves validation of production technology, verification of technical maturity, site selection, plant design, permitting, and detailed cost estimation, all of which will require 12-15 months to complete. Following Phase I, interagency technical experts will evaluate the projects to determine if they will move on to Phase II, which is for biorefinery construction

If all Phase I projects successfully complete the second phase of this project, awardees project that this would represent more than 150M gallons per year of drop-in, military-compatible fuels with initial production capacity by 2016 at an average cost of less than $4 per gallon.

For now, the U.S. military is sailing in relatively safe waters when it sticks with research and testing projects. But it would need a political mine sweeper ahead of any plans to build its own biorefineries or make large purchase contracts for pricey biofuels such as the $26/gal algae fuel used to power the Navy’s recent exercises off the coast of Hawaii.

Speaking of the Navy, one way to track the progress of biofuels in the military is to keep an eye on the Navy’s Great Green Fleet.

 

Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing

I’m going to have to start posting more frequently. My last post was about solar firms going bankrupt in China and now my cleantech news is about how solar is set to rebound. Seems like something should have happened in between that post and this one.

Actually, a few biobased chemical deals were announced. Thanks BASF and Evonik!

Stuttgart solar cell project

Making a better solar cell. Credit: University of Stuttgart Institute of Photovoltaics

Anyway – back to solar. Earlier this week, Lux Research (a rather skeptical gang generally) put out a summary of a new research report titled “Solar’s Great Recovery: Photovoltaics Reach $155 Billion Market in 2018.”

Actually, solar had a great 2012 – at last in the U.S. – but that was mainly due to installations of several large utility projects. The business of producing those solar modules had hit some major potholes. Around five years ago, solar demand was hindered by high prices – held up by shortages of key polysilicon raw material, but balanced by huge subsidies in Europe, especially in Spain and Germany. Then – in the nature of boom and bust cycles – the high prices prompted huge polysilicon capacity increases. Then prices fell, Europe cut subsides, the recession hit… and all that new capacity made solar prices tank and inventories piled up. Whew – what a tale.

In a fun new twist, according to Lux analyst Ed Cahill, the solar crisis will become a boon as record low prices boost demand. (And after that what will happen? Stay tuned).

The rise will take place as those cheaper installations (especially utility and commercial rooftop) become routine and spread into new markets. U.S., China, Japan, and India are expected to speed up installations. That will help to power (no pun intended) a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10.5% over the next three years.

A few other things might help – according to this New York Times article, the U.S. and Europe are both working to smooth over trade disputes with China. Regional pricing schemes may take the place of tariffs. China had been accused of exporting solar modules at prices less than the cost of production (a practice called “dumping”). China, in turn, accused polysilicon makers in the U.S. and Europe of doing the same thing.

All of this fun news is not likely to help revive solar module manufacturing in the U.S. or in Germany. But new technology might. My colleague Alex Scott flagged a news item from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Photovoltaics. Researchers there have tested a crystalline silicon solar cell with a 22% sunlight conversion efficiency. It is difficult to say how much a module made of these cells would convert, but a traditional module is normally around 15%.

The secret to the team’s work is a design that puts the metal contacts on the back layer of the cell, using a laser. While hanging out on the back of the cell, the material will not block light hitting the front of the cell. Ta-da! More electrons.

 

 

No Magic In China’s Solar Industry

Sunday I picked up an actual print copy of the Washington Post. In the Business section was a feature by Steven Mufson on the rise and fall of Chinese solar firm Suntech – which was at one time the world’s largest producer of crystalline silicon solar panels. In mid March the firm defaulted on $541 million worth of convertible bonds.

(The story of Suntech’s founder and now-former CEO, Shi Zhengrong, is also captured in the feature. A true rags to riches tale.)

In the waning months of 2012, pundits were forcasting major financial problems for some of China’s humongous solar companies – but many expected that the government would prop them up with loans to keep them afloat. There were many reasons why it might have: China wants to hold on to its dominance in making solar modules for export, it has huge targets for domestic installations, it has a policy of subsidizing industrial expansion, and it can provide both cheap electricity and cheap financing.

Mufson explains how Suntech was caught up in a very expensive race to the bottom in solar module production – overcapacity (in expensive facilities) and rapidly shrinking margins, fueled unhelpfully by China’s green economy plans. The U.S. added to the woe by slapping a tariff on solar modules imported from China (oversupply set the stage for what trade officials like to call dumping).

Mufson writes:

Until now, policymakers in China have used subsidies to create a world-leading “green tech” industry that would push the country up the economic value chain. But green tech doesn’t guarantee thriving businesses. In the race for global solar supremacy, world manufacturing capacity has grown to 60 gigawatts, most of it in China. That outpaced solar demand, which is expected to reach about 35 gigawatts this year, enough to power about 26 million homes. So prices of photovoltaic panels have plummeted, and it will take three to five years for overcapacity to shrink, says Bill Wiseman, managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey’s Taipei office.

China has other very large solar producers in addition to Suntech and LDK. They also have Trina Solar and Yingli. Four huge vertically integrated module makers was at least two too many. Analysts will be watching margins and debt very carefully now that it is clear that China’s future financial support for solar companies is not guaranteed.

Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents

Thanks to the wonders of internet technology (specifically, online newspapers, e-mail, and Twitter), I have been immersed today in a veritable blizzard of communications about whether particular technologies are bad for us or for the planet, and what should be done about them. Truly, a wide range of people, opinions, and actions.

GMOs
I much enjoyed a radio interview/debate about legislation that would force food makers to label food containing genetically modified organisms. If you have a few spare minutes, check out this KPBS San Diego piece featuring Steven Briggs, Distinguished Professor, Section of Cell and Developmental Biology, UC San Diego, and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

http://www.kpbs.org/audioclips/17711/
[the interview starts at about minute 1:10]

The show addresses a bit of background: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a GMO labeling bill in the Senate. A state referendum in California to require labeling was defeated in the recent election. And a recent poll claims that 91% of consumers are in favor of labeling.

In the interview, Briggs states that efforts to require GMO labeling are based on confusion about GMOs and are not about nutrition or safety but about ideology (specifically anti-corporate ideology). Bronner, on the other side, says consumers want information about GMOs and have a right to know. He says that while our experience so far does not show that GMOs have caused health problems, the consumers want to understand what method of agriculture produced their food. He also states that GMOs promote non-sustainable farming.

In the interview, Bronner mentions two aspects of GM technology that you can read about in C&EN:
A new GM apple
http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i14/Engineered-Apples-Near-Approval.html
And new seed traits that confer tolerance to older herbicides 2,4 D and Dicamba http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i21/War-Weeds.html

For a longer, though more one-sided discussion of the possible benefits of GMOs, there is a new book out, called the God Species by Mark Lynas, a historian and writer of global warming warning books. He recently did an eco-about-face and came out in favor of GM technologies. Prior to that coming out, he had been an anti-GMO activist.

For a hefty dose of his thinking, you can read an essay here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/04/time-to-call-out-the-anti-gmo-conspiracy-theory/

He would probably not be in favor of requiring GMO labels on food. In the essay (actually a speech) is this line: “Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.”

Cosmetics Ingredients/Industrial Chemicals
I also got an e-mail titled “Shareholders urge Avon to Detox.” An investor fund with strong activist leanings, the Green Century Equity Fund, has filed a shareholder resolution asking Avon Corporation to phase out what it calls hazardous chemicals in its cosmetics and personal care products. Green Century urges Avon to follow the lead of Johnson and Johnson, which said it would phase out certain ingredients starting with its baby products.

The fund lists 1,4-dioxane, retinyl palmitate, formaldehyde, triclosan, and phthalates as some of the hazardous chemicals of concern commonly found in many personal care products.

The general outlines of this campaign has been in the works for a good while – you can read more in a C&EN feature from back in 2010: Preservatives Under Fire
http://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i20/Preservatives-Under-Fire.html

Taking a much broader scope, public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have collaborated on a book detailing the political history of lead exposure and public health. They wrote an essay that got picked up and republished on Bill Moyers website. The title would make any chemical firm’s PR department clench: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube. The gist is that the decades-long fight to reduce children’s exposure to harmful lead will be fought again against today’s common stuff like vinyl, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/29/your-body-is-a-corporate-test-tube/

Nuclear Weapons
I’m including this mostly because it involves terrific story telling. Three outsiders on a peace mission from God broke into nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge National Lab. As profiled in the Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/

Solar Boom in Japan, with Battery to Match

Japan has been making large strides in solar since the Fukushima disaster, and those efforts look set to accelerate, at least in the near term. The country, which is not blessed with a wealth of fossil fuel resources, had relied heavily on nuclear energy, but it is now spending big for solar installations as well as energy storage.

Just in time for Earth Day, Bloomberg is reporting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to spend around $204 million on a battery system to stabilize the flow of solar power on the northern island of Hokkaido. The location’s less expensive land has attracted ground module solar power systems. The report did not state what type of battery will be used, though Cleantech Chemistry will be looking for updates. The ministry is targeting 2015 for the system to be up and running (up and storing?)

The country began a generous feed in tariff for solar in July, which attracted just over 1.33 GW of installations through the end of January of this year. According to IHS iSuppli, the FIT is around 42 cents (in U.S. currency) per kilowatt hour, which is quite generous.

Though the tariff may be scaled back as systems come online, IHS forecasts that Japan will install 5 GW of solar capacity this year. To put that figure in perspective, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association reports that 30 GW of grid-connected solar was installed globally in 2012, about the same as in 2011.

Natural Gas and Cleantech

Cleantech fans: it is time to educate yourselves. Set aside for a moment your interest in wind energy, solar, bio-based chemicals, biofuels, and electric vehicles and read this week’s story about what the U.S. may do with its abundant natural gas.

Here are some things that the country can do with natural gas: it can make electricity, upgrade it to useful chemicals, use it as a transportation fuel, or export it. The U.S. has access to so much natural gas that it could do all four things. And do them all cheaply, and profitably compared to our trade partners.

At this point, even if you only use your knowledge about the promise of cleantech at cocktail parties, you should start to think about the impact of abundant natural gas on your favorite technologies.

My colleagues Jeff Johnson and Alex Tullo’s feature asks what effect DOE policies on liquefied natural gas exports might have on the chemical industry and the wider economy. The flip question – not addressed in the story — is what impact natural gas that stays in the U.S. will have on the competitiveness of renewable energy and materials innovations.

At the recent ARPA-E show, I saw energy technology that is seeking to take advantage of abundant natural gas – and the speakers at the conference were rather fixated on the topic. (see my story on the ARPA-E Show in this week’s issue). Alert readers will recognize which minority member of the Senate appears in both articles.

I hate to give away the ending of the natural gas story but (spoiler alert!) U.S. natural gas prices will stay low even if we ramp up exports. When I was in school and my class learned about the Panama Canal, one of my classmates couldn’t understand why engineers had to build locks to compensate for the different sea levels between the Pacific and Atlantic. Once you connected the two oceans, wouldn’t they level out? Well, no.

Similarly, there is a small aperture through which natural gas would escape U.S. borders via the export market. Liquification imposes a significant surcharge on every unit of gas, it costs a lot to build a plant to do it, the export hubs need to be brought online, and there is a backlog in approving facilities. But read the full story and get the full picture.