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Algae Ponds: the lovers and the haters

This week’s issue of C&EN includes some news from algae-based biofuels firm Sapphire Energy. The company is reporting its first harvests of algae biomass from a large, outdoor algae farm in New Mexico.

Sapphire’s outdoor raceway ponds in New Mexico. Source: Sapphire Energy

Sapphire has grown and gathered 21 million gallons of algae biomass totaling 81 tons. Eventually, the plan is to make a kind of crude oil from the algae. They grow the stuff in very large outdoor ponds. According to the press release, “the cultivation area consists of some of the largest algae ponds ever built with groupings of 1.1 acre and 2.2 acre ponds which are 1/8 of a mile long.”

You’d think that the promoters of algae for biofuels would be clinking glasses filled with spirulina-enhanced juice at the news. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, a trade group of algae firms calling itself the National Algae Association says the kind of ponds used by Sapphire – known as raceway ponds (you can see why looking at this image) – will not scale up commercially. Instead the NAA supports the development of photobioreactors (PBRs for short). Similarly, algae researcher Jonathan Trent, writing in a New Scientist magazine piece that also appears in Slate is arguing in favor of photobioreactors. Specifically, Trent says PBRs should be deployed offshore. I’ll quote from his article where he summarizes the raceway/PBR tradeoffs:

There remains the question of how and where to grow the algae. A few species are cultivated commercially on a small scale, in shallow channels called raceways or in enclosures called photobioreactors (PBRs). Raceways are relatively inexpensive, but need flat land, have lower yields than PBRs and problems with contamination and water loss from evaporation. PBRs have no problems with contamination or evaporation, but algae need light, and where there is light, there is heat: A sealed PBR will cook, rather than grow, algae. And mixing, circulating, and cleaning problems send costs sky high.

Trent doesn’t mention what industry analysts complain about the most. When it comes to algae, though PBRs might be the best bet, they require too much capital expenditure for the equipment.

Meanwhile, Solazyme, which started life as an algal fuels firm but now is manufacturing oils for use in skin cream and other high value applications, grows its algae in a third way – its algae live in bioreactors, but in the dark. They eat sugar and make oil. Is there a best way to commercialize algae for fuels and chemicals? Is there any way? It seems that it is still too early to tell.

Metabolix: the Post-ADM Update

It’s been a very busy summer, but I had a chance to catch up with Rick Eno, the CEO of Metabolix, last week. Metabolix makes a bio-based plastic that it calls Mirel, though chemists call it a polyhydroxyalkanoate polymer (PHA). We last heard from Metabolix in January when its commercial-scale partnership with Archer Daniels Midland dissolved.

The breakup was a significant blow to the company in terms of growing its business and selling Mirel to customers. The partnership with ADM was based around an ADM-financed production plant capable of making 50,000 tons of Mirel per year. Unfortunately, sales ramped up slowly and ADM said the market was too risky.

Since the breakup, Metabolix has decided to launch the biodegradable Mirel bioplastic under its own nameplate, says Eno. It has transferred inventory from ADM, and brought over all the business operations. Still, the company needs a production partner.

“Since Mirel was exclusive to ADM for so long, [after the breakup] we did get inbound calls and we also reached out to potential partners to establish potential manufacturing,” Eno told C&EN. He says that rather than try to sell enough Mirel to keep a huge plant busy, he’s now looking for something closer to a 10,000 ton per year scale.

“We’ve narrowed down a large number of potential opportunities to four. Now we’re looking at engineering detail for integration of our manufacturing technology to the partners’ asset sets,” Eno reports. “We’re deeply evaluating a short list of manufacturing options.” Without ADM to center the business, Metabolix can look outside the U.S. – for example, to be closer to customers. In fact, the firm has opened a sales office in Cologne, Germany to be close to the European market.

As Alex Tullo wrote in his recent cover story on biodegradable plastics, an important market niche is in organic waste handling – specifically in municipalities where organic waste is separated and hauled to composting facilities. Eno suggests this is both a good niche for PHA, and also a great reason to be in Europe where people rigorously sort their trash.

Eno followed up on his January comments that the company would look to higher-value markets that really require biodegradability, rather than try to compete with cheap and plentiful petro-based plastics. He said the company is focusing on agriculture and horticultural markets – for things like biodegradable plastic mulch; the consumer market for compostable bags and similar products for organic waste diversion; a broader packaging market; and a marine and aquatic segment where it is important that plastics biodegrade fully in oceans and streams.

The breakup with ADM somewhat ironically boosted Metabolix’s cash position (for some rather complicated accounting reasons). That will be a big help, because the company is still developing its upcoming portfolio of bio-based C3 and C4 chemicals, using different PHA molecules than Mirel uses as an intermediate. Example target chemicals are gamma butyrolactone and acrylic acid. The C4 program is the farthest along and has reached 60,000 liter fermenters in scale-up. Eno says the chemicals program has netted “significant partner interest.”

Also helping to pay the bills is a government grant backing the company’s efforts to put the bio-based plastic platform into purpose-grown plants. In a recent advance, Metabolix and its research partners have reported a new way to increase polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) production in sugar cane.

So there you have it – Metabolix is still moving along. The next time we will hear from them, Eno says, it will be because they have a new production partnership to announce. Stay tuned.

Spring Themes: Composting

[you can skip my musings and go straight to Alex's compostable plastics story!]

Today’s forecasted high temperature where I live in the Northeast is 78 degrees. That just doesn’t seem right. This time last year, we still had an impressive layer of snow which didn’t melt until sometime in April. [insert random thoughts of global warming, La Nina, and how yesterday was almost 20 degrees warmer than the forecast promised]

Over the weekend I took the opportunity to turn my compost pile. It’s got mostly kitchen scraps, a few bits of brown paper bag (worms love ‘em) and leaf litter. Home composting is both an art and a science – my pile had too much nitrogen and not enough carbon, so I added more dried leaves.

I also noticed a plastic spoon in the pile, normally a no-no. But this one was made of PLA, a plastic derived from corn that is supposed to be biodegradable. It still looked pretty new, though, mostly because my backyard pile cannot reach the high temperature and rabid microbial activity of an industrial scale composting operation.

If I lived in San Francisco (and today it feels like I do!) I would put the spoon and my kitchen scraps, and perhaps some lawn wastes into a compostable plastic bag and set it out to be picked up. This week’s issue of C&EN features an in-depth, fascinating story by Alex Tullo on how compostable plastic trash bags – plus disposable dinner ware – can enable cities to divert 50% or more of trash away from landfills.

From the story:

In a landfill, food scraps generate methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. They also form acids that leech out of landfills. “If you ask all these cities what the largest component of their waste going to the landfill is, it’s food,” he says. “And what is one of the worst things to go to the landfill? It’s food. The only thing worse is hazardous waste.” [quote from Jack Macy, commercial zero-waste coordinator for SF Environment, San Francisco’s environmental department.]

Now think about your household’s waste. To reach San Fran’s goal of diverting 100% of municipal trash from landfills, it would have to be either recycled or composted. Plastics can be recycled, but if they get into the composting supply (like a random fork, or the trash bag holding the food waste) then you’ve already broken your system.

Making Markets for Bio-based Fuels and Chemicals

Minnesota has long been the heart of ethanol fuel consumption. With plenty of corn and corn ethanol facilites – and a lot of drivers in E85 vehicles – the state was an early and enthusiastic supporter of bio-based fuel. But times have caught up with the northern-Midwesterners.

Now a new ethanol facility, owned by Gevo and being renovated to make isobutanol from corn, has run into an obstacle in state legislation that prevents the company from selling the alcohol to in-state fuel blenders. According to the Star Tribune, the state’s laws only specify that ethanol can be blended with gasoline (at 10% biofuel). Gevo’s Lucerne, Minn. isobutanol plant will have to ship out of state to access the fuel market.

Currently the site is being renovated to switch from making corn-based ethanol to isobutanol. Though the goal is to sell into the higher-margin chemicals market, fuels are usually a key destination to make the capacity/revenue equations work out.

There’s still time to get that settled, though. Gevo won’t be in commercial production until June, and the state can update the regulation to include other bio-based fuels. The Star Tribune points out that the President of the state’s ethanol trade group, Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association, is also CEO of Highwater Ethanol, which is also considering making isobutanol.
Highwater says it is in discussions with Butamax, a joint venture of BP and DuPont and competitor to Gevo. The two firms are been engaged in a major patent dispute. With Gevo poised to be the first in Minnesota to make isobutanol, I’m sure the firm would like to see the law changed sooner, rather than later.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, there are efforts to greatly expand the products that carry the USDA BioPreferred label. The program is a labeling/economic development/domestic bio-based materials promotion vehicle. President Obama gave it a boost last week when he signed a presidential memo requiring government agency purchasers to increase the amount of BioPreferred products they purchase. He also asked USDA to double the number of categories and products that are designated BioPreferred over the next 12 months. In the Senate, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has introduced the Grow It Here, Make It Here Bio-based Manufacturing Act which would further invigorate the effort.

I’ve been seeing a great deal of support Senator Stabenow’s bill in my in-box, from groups who expect to benefit from a higher profile for bio-based materials. DuPont, Novozymes, and the Biotechnology Industry Association trade group have publicized their support.

From a DuPont press release this morning: “The President’s action and the Grow It Here Make It Here bill demonstrate that the administration and policymakers understand the value of U.S. leadership on innovative biobased products in the United States,” said James C. Collins, president, DuPont Industrial Biosciences. “This action is a shot in the arm to America’s bioeconomy – helping support our overarching goals of boosting the U.S. agricultural sector and reducing our reliance on imported petroleum while offering a wealth of
environmental and health benefits.  This is U.S. innovation that can help create U.S. jobs for a growing global market for sustainable products.”

Amyris: Earnings with a scent of patchouli

I learned an interesting new detail while listening to an earnings call.  On Monday evening, bio-based chemicals maker Amyris listed a handful of collaborations that would kick in some revenues in 2012. Amyris makes bio-based farnesene from sugar via fermentation. New to my ears is a project with fragrance and flavor maker Firmenich to make patchouli oil.

Amyris has had agreements with both Firmenich and Givaudan for flavor and fragrance products based on farnesene raw materials, but this is the first time I’ve heard about a particular end target. Two things come to mind to connect Amyris to patchouli, and neither have to do with insense burning or the counterculture (though these may be the first thing one thinks of related to patchouli).

Patchouli scent comes from a bush, for now. Credit: Wikipedia (cc)

First, farnesene is one of a large family of chemical compounds that make up the sesquiterpenes. Various forms of farnesene contribute to smelly compounds made by plants and insects, and the E isomer of beta farnesene is a constitutent of essential oils. Compounds like essential oils and other volatiles are part of the arms race between plant and insect. Patchouli scent is made from the essential oils of a member of the mint family; various species of the genus  Pogostemon 

are cultivated in Asia and Africa for the fragrance.

Second, though you might not notice it, many personal care products as well as soaps and detergents have scents that include patchouli. And it is widely used in perfumery. But patchouli and other essential oils pose tricky supply chain problems for consumer product makers – natural and man-made disasters can signficantly disrupt supplies. In 2010, for example, a volcanic eruption in Java destroyed patchouli crops in Java. This suggests that a renewable, steady supply of the stuff might make for a solid, high-value marketplace for Amyris’ farnesene.

NatureWorks + BioAmber = AmberWorks

Two leading bio-based materials makers are joining forces. NatureWorks, which is owned by Cargill and makes polylactic acid (PLA) plastic from corn sugar, has formed a joint venture with BioAmber, a bio-based chemicals company focused on making succinic acid from sugar.

PLA (pictured) joins PBS in a bioplastic venture. Credit: NatureWorks

The venture plans to blend PLA with polybutylene succinate (PBS) into a compound that would be suitable for food service ware applications that are made from thermoforming and injection molding.

Yet at this point, BioAmber – which filed for an IPO in November – has not completed a commercial-scale production plant for bio-succinic acid. For now, Bioamber’s succinic acid is produced from wheat-derived glucose at a demonstration-scale facility in Pomacle, France.

BioAmber has controlled intellectual property for making PBS from renewable sources for a while now. In 2010 DNP Green Technology – which is now BioAmber – bought a Philadelphia company called Sinoven Biopolymers that developed a modified PBS that can use renewable ingredients.

Biofuels from Seaweed

The concept of making biofuels from seaweed has been floating around as an idea for a while now, but this week there were a few real news items about it. Well, I consider it real news when it makes the cover of Science

.

Seaweed in your tank? Credit:
Melody Bomgardner

Following the theme that any ready source of carbon, not already used for something, is a prime target for biofuel prospectors, scientists are working to create microorganisms that can break down seaweeed alginates into sugar, and then make ethanol from it.

The microbe is our friend E. coli, and researchers at Bio Architecture Lab, a biofuel and renewable chemicals company in Berkeley, Calif. have added genes that allow E. coli to first break down alginates into smaller bits, digest those more sugar-like bits, and then spit out ethanol.  Unlike in the processes usually used for cellulosic ethanol, the Science article writers claim their bacteria can chomp seaweed without chemical or heat pre-treatment.

If seaweed as cover model isn’t convincing, a second seaweeed-flavored item announced this week is a new collaboration between enzyme maker Novozymes and an Indian seaweed company called Sea6 Energy. “The research alliance will use enzymes to convert seaweed-based carbohydrates to sugar, which can then be fermented to produce ethanol for fuel, fine chemicals, proteins for food, and fertilizers for plants,” says the press release. (I read that to mean the non-sugar portion would be made into food and fertilizer – if sugar can be made into protein I’m going to have to change my diet).

Here’s the benefits that the seaweed pushers are claiming: seaweed has a high sugar content (presumably after those enzymes get to working), they don’t require irrigation (ha! no kidding) or fertilizer, and of course, duh, they don’t take up cropland. Seaweed – also called macroalgae by some – can be raised and harvested without those fancy bioreactors used by algae-to-fuel operators.

Seaweed can, however, be a purpose-grown crop. In fact, Sea6 already has a supply chain set up for that, as do firms like the chemical company FMC that harvest and process seaweed for the food markets. Alginate and carrageenen are already big business helping to make your low-fat Ranch dressing taste creamy (see Call in the Food Fixers for more on seaweed in your food).

But what works for the high-margin food additives business may not be profitable for the lower-margin fuel industry. Still, it’s an idea that’s spreading.

The End of the Plastic Bag

There is a giant hurricane threatening the entire East Coast. And the economy is in shambles, regardless of what Ben Bernanke promises to do at the Fed today. But this week I’ve been thinking about something a lot smaller – plastic shopping bags.  Or more particularly, the demise of the single-use plastic shopping bag.

It seems that the minister of the environment of Italy, Stefania Prestigiacomo, imposed an outright ban on single-use, non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags, beginning on Jan.1 of this year. I learned about this because we here at C&EN were wondering what would cause a bunch of bio-based chemicals firms to want to put manufacturing plants there.

Bagging it. Washington, DC discourages plastic bag use

Earlier this week, Genomatica, a bio-based chemicals maker, said that it would enter a joint venture with Italian bioplastics firm Novamont. This follows a string of similar announcements that have made Italy a hotspot of bio-based chemical production. In May, compostable plastics firm Cereplast announced it would build a 100,000 ton per year facility in Assisi. In the same month DSM and Roquette said they would build a commercial-scale succinic acid plant in Cassano Spinola.

Back here in the U.S., wrangling about plastic bags is done on a local, not national, level. San Francisco – as usual – led things off with a ban in 2007.

Washington, DC, the hometown of the ACS, took a more subtle route that I believe was really based on old-fashioned moral suasion. The DC council learned the trash that made the Anacostia River such an eyesore was, inlarge part, plastic bags. Starting in early 2010, regulations were put in place requiring a 5 cent fee for plastic bags at any retail outlet selling food. The fees collected would go to help clean up the river, as would the decrease in plastic bag use.

I’m not the only one thinking about plastic bag bans this week. Over on the Greenbiz blog, Leslie Guevarra asks if these regional efforts are gaining any ground. And she points out that the media have been tracking efforts by the American Chemistry Council – the main trade group of the chemical industry – to push back against bag bans and fees.

Have bag bans or fees made their way to where you live? If so, how has that impacted your behavior and that of your neighbors? Do you think these kinds of laws work? If no rules are in place were you live, have you noticed if people have become more likely to decline a bag or bring their own bag out of awareness of environmental/litter issues?

Cleantech Stocks Get Thumbs Up

Given the stock turmoil today and yesterday, recent earnings reports from IPO’d cleantech firms may be flying under the radar for most people. And to call them “earnings” reports is a bit generous, too; they are really “losses” reports, but that is to be expected for early-stage technology firms.

Solazyme's Algenist skin products - Analysts are buying it, and other cleantech stories

Still, its worth noting what analysts are saying about companies like Amyris, Gevo, KiOR, and Solazyme and what the firms reported for the second quarter. While I was mulling a post on just this subject, Jim Lane, over at Biofuels Digest got his post up yesterday covering the first three companies. So I’m giving a hat tip to him and suggesting that you go over there and read his summary.

But if the heat and the stock swings have you too worn out to do that, the short take is that though Amyris and Gevo posted results that were not as strong as expected, analysts following the firms are still enthusiastic about the stocks. KiOR will release it’s second quarter results next Thursday. The important pieces that analysts are looking for is whether the companies have a realistic plan for increasing scale (whether they use their own, or other company’s capital to do so). They also want to get a sense of where revenues will come from in the short term, for example, from product sales or off-take agreements from reliable customers.

Yesterday, Solazyme reported revenues of $7.4 million, which beat the expectations of analyst Laurence Alexander of Jefferies & Co. He had predicted $6.0 million. Most of the revenues came from R&D funding but the company has begun generating sales of its skin care line, called Algenist, made from an algae-derived tailored oil. Alexander says that the Algenist launch will turn out to be larger than expected, meaning more revenues, and thus, less operating losses, into the future.  In addition, he notes that the company will deliver 283,000 liters of fuel to the U.S. Navy and the contract calls for up to 550,000 liters. He’s put a Buy rating on the stock.

Cleantech Chemistry recently posted an interview with Cameron Byers, Solazyme’s senior vice president & general manager of fuels and chemicals about how the company plans to make money.

DSM Stakes Out an Eco-Friendly Niche

Dutch chemical firm DSM has been much in my sphere lately. In this week’s issue, I write about the firm’s engineering plastics, which were designed for recyclability and do not contain halogenated compounds.

When I’m not writing about earth-friendly technology, I cover the more day-to-day side of the chemical business by writing about company earnings. This week I am reviewing earnings results from European chemical firms and I note that DSM touts its sustainability efforts in its quarterly report. Most chemical firms relegate this information to their annual report, or to a separate yearly sustainability report.

DSM reported on the number of products in its pipeline that meet its own criteria for better environmental profiles (they call them ECO+ solutions). Apparently the pipeline is chock full of ECO+; 87% meet that benchmark. It reported on the ECO+ proportion of current products (40%) as well as progress toward energy efficiency goals. DSM has targeted a 20% improvement in 2020 compared to 2008.

The wording of the report indicates that these measures are updated at least twice per year. Usually, earnings reports are intended to inform investors of the financial results of a firm over a short period of time. Sustainability efforts, of course, tend to take a longer-term view.

I wonder what credit investors give DSM for claiming this eco-niche and for the transparency of semi-annual updates. We should remember that the reports have other audiences in addition to investors – stock analysts, regulators, members of the communities where a firm operates, and employees. Oh, I forgot the media. That’s another one.