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Algae and Water Energy

Could the energy cost of moving water sink the burgeoning algae industry?

C&EN recently checked in with a number of leading algae-growing firms to learn more about their current plans for profiting from the prolific green slime. Though eventually many hope to make money in the large market for biofuels, most firms say that other products like chemicals and high-protein fish food will go first.

Water World. Cellana's marine algae ponds are in Hawaii. Credit: Cellana

Building large-scale algae-growing systems is still too expensive to make fuels profitable. The key to bringing down costs is in the engineering of the infrastructure. A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at the energy costs of moving water into and around algae-growing systems (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (13), pp 5861–5868).Researchers Cynthia Murphy and David Allen presented a startling conclusion:

Energy output in the form of algal biodiesel and the total energy content of algal biomass are compared to energy inputs required for water management. The analysis indicates that, for current technologies, energy required for water management alone is approximately seven times greater than energy output in the form of biodiesel and more than double that contained within the entire algal biomass.

Seven times greater?

Ouch. Like any model, this one began with a host of assumptions. Importantly, the model did not assume that algae farmers would be using fresh water, but did assume algae would be grown in open ponds (except for the inoculation vessels). In fact, the main problem is not the water itself, but the need to move it around from place to place.

First water from various sources (saline, fresh, reclaimed from the facility) needs to be obtained and pumped into the inoculation area and the algae pond. More water would be added to compensate for algae removed, evaporation and other “leaks” from the system. Evaporation would concentrate salts in the pond, and may require compensating amounts of fresh water for “blow down.” Cleaning after each growing season would require removing the water and replacing it.

In addition, energy would be required to remove water from the harvested algae, and then to return that reclaimed water to the system. The researchers also included in the model the embodied energy of the plastics used to contain the algae in ponds (and the lifespan of the plastics).

There is no way, of course, to compare the assumptions in the model to any particular firm’s proprietary growing system. But I did pose the question of water energy to the companies I spoke with that use open ponds.

Cellana’s CEO Martin Sabarsky said, “Water is a big issue. It’s an issue for biofuels generally. You have to deal with it on the backend too. We’ve developed and are continuing to optimize cost effective technology to handle water issues at the back end including dewatering. “

And Sapphire President Cynthia Warner commented, “It is true that to optimize the process and get costs down, you have to minimize water movement, maximize efficiency. Using sophisticated equipment is key.”

Q&A With Solazyme

C&EN first wrote about leading algae firm Solazyme in 2009. At that time algae firms were gathering up venture capital funding and perfecting their technologies for growing the green slime. Many were targeting biofuels markets, but some firms had additional markets in mind.

Solazyme’s algae live in large fermentation tanks and eat sugars, which are transformed into algal oil – a type of vegetable oil. The company went public in late May, and raised $227 million from investors.

We checked in with Solazyme to find out more about its business model, and the types of markets it is targeting with its oils. Cameron Byers, senior vice president & general manager of fuels and chemicals gave us a closer look.

C&EN: I first spoke with Solazyme back in early 2009 – it seems like forever ago in algae time. Even then, the firm was targeting specialty chemicals, food, and cosmetics in addition to biofuel.  How did that diverse product strategy affect your ability to attract investors and business partners pre-IPO?

 Byers: Producing a diverse range of products is not just important, it is what our technology platform was designed to do in-line with our business model. The markets served by conventional oils – petroleum, plants and animal fats – represented an opportunity of over $3.1 trillion in 2010, an attractive potential market for investors. Solazyme’s custom oils can address each of these markets, providing both an environmentally and economically sustainable solution.  As an example, Solazyme recently announced a joint development agreement with The Dow Chemical Company to develop of a new class of algal oils tailored for optimized performance and cost in dielectric insulating fluid applications. Dielectric fluids alone represents a 500 million gallon market.

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Intermediates Start-ups Star in Green Chemistry

Genomatica and BioAmber have been named as two winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. This is a good week for the renewable intermediate chemicals industry. (You can see the full list of awardees here.)

Start-ups have been moving on to the winners podium beginning in 2009 with Virent, a catalyst-focused bio-fuels firm. Green chemicals and fuels firm LS9 popped onto the list in 2010. But having two tech start-ups in 2011 suggests that these new companies are taking on a larger share of the attention paid to green chemistry by policy makers.

Historically, winners of the Challenge Award have been larger concerns like Proctor & Gamble, Eastman Chemical, Dow Chemical, and Cargill. In contrast to those diversified companies, renewables start-ups must see their green chemistry succeed in the market or they will go out of business.

Knowing this, C&EN tracks with interest statements from start-ups about plans for scaled-up facilities, strong corporate partnerships, and estimates of cost-competitiveness with petroleum-derived chemicals. It can’t be all about the technology. Likewise, the discussion about the award to Genomatica on the EPA’s website encompasses the technology itself, the many environmental benefits, and the possible low-cost manufacture of the company’s bio-BDO. I’ll peel off just the green bennies from the discussion in this quote from the award:

“Initial lifecycle analyses show that Genomatica’s Bio-BDO will require about 60 percent less energy than acetylene-based BDO. Also, the biobased BDO pathway consumes carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in a reduction of 70 percent in CO2 emissions. Fermentation requires no organic solvent, and the water used is recycled. Furthermore, the Bio-BDO fermentation process operates near ambient pressure and temperature, thus providing a safer working environment.”

For BioAmber, a company in the midst of scale-up plans for bio-based succinic acid, the award focuses on how the firm’s product can enter the marketplace. “BioAmber’s economic advantage has given a number of chemical markets the confidence both to use succinic acid as a substitute for existing petrochemicals and to develop new applications for succinic acid. Succinic acid can replace some chemicals directly, including adipic acid for polyurethane applications and highly corrosive acetate salts for deicing applications. BioAmber has also made it economically feasible to (1) transform biobased succinic acid into renewable 1,4 butanediol and other four-carbon chemicals; (2) produce succinate esters for use as nontoxic solvents and substitutes for phthalate-based plasticizers in PVC (poly(vinyl chloride)) and other polymers; and (3) produce biodegradable, renewable performance plastics.”

What Does Groupon have to do with Cleantech?

Over at Earth2Tech, blogger Katie Fehrenbacher gives some reasons why the recent excitement powering Internet IPOs might be a boon for cleantech firms. As she points out, the venture capital game is about making money on an entire portfolio of investments, and if individual investors want to pay big for a piece of a coupon business, then VCs can cash out and cover their exposure to slow-to-grow renewables companies.

In examining the numbers, she looks at New Enterprise Associates, which is backing the Groupon IPO - likely to bring in lots of cash – and is also invested in e-car maker Fisker Automotive, fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy and thin-film solar firm Konarka, among others. A Groupon windfall might come close to the size of the diversified fund in its entirety. This could take the pressure off of those long R&D timelines, she suggests.

It’s no accident that so many Cleantech VCs are headquartered in San Francisco, and have portfolios in tech (of the computer and internet variety) as well as cleantech. It’s because most started up during the software and internet booms and then grew to take on green start-ups. But the latter type of investment is much more industrial, slow to develop, and capital intensive. That’s why some IPO watchers (and Fehrenbacher actually made this point last month) have suggested VCs may retreat from cleantech and flow back into the faster, cleaner world of silicon. 

It is probably too early in the days of Internet boom part II to tell what, if any, impact we’ll see on the fundraising abilities of cleantech firms. But it’s good to remember that cleantech firms compete not just with each other, but with other industries for investment dollars.

One small rule of thumb to remember is that a successful IPO for a venture capital fund brings in ten times the amount invested. They are supposed to be high-risk, high-reward bets where one good launch makes up for many failures. That is the yardstick that VCs will use to measure the success of a cleantech company IPO.

More on Metabolix: “densified switchgrass”

Though it is technically a word (according to Merriam-Webster), I’m not sure “densify” would make my C&EN editors happy, so I’m going to use it here on the blog. Last week we learned that Metabolix was awarded $6 million in USDA/DOE grant money to densify switchgrass.

Today, the company issued a press release with a bit more detail on the research. And it seems that to densify a biomass really means to get more good stuff out of a given volume (weight?) of material. In fact, Metabolix wants to “produce densified biomass with transportation and fuel properties closely matching coal.”

In addition to growing switchgrass with an ever larger percentage of their star bio-based plastic (polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA), Metabolix has now confirmed the route (or a route)  it plans to take to obtain C4 chemicals from the engineered plants. It will use a thermolysis process to obtain crotonic acid (C4H6O2), which can in turn be converted into chemical intermediates such as butanol and propylene.

It’s Sappy – Ford’s plan for Dandelions

Cleantech chemistry doesn’t know where you, dear reader, are sitting right now. But it’s quite likely that if you look out your window at the nearest patch of green, you will see some of these ubiquitous weeds:

Not the Russian variety, but you get the idea. Credit: C&EN

But as gardeners will tell you, it’s only a weed if it appears where it is not wanted. But dandelions ARE wanted in Wooster, Ohio, where a team of agricultural researchers are right this very moment tending to a crop of Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian Dandelions. The milky sap of the plant’s taproot contains a high-quality rubber that mirrors the performance characteristics of the Brazilian rubber tree, source of almost all natural rubber.
 Researchers at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center will provide samples of rubber to Ford Motor Company. Ford says it is interested in blending the rubber with various plastics and using the flexible materials in auto interiors for cup holders, floormats, and trim.
What Ford does not mention, however,  is that the research picks up on an interesting piece of U.S. industrial history.  

Metabolix to get $6M From DOE for Denser Switchgrass

Metabolix is one of 8 firms and research organizations named in a Department of Energy grant program that will put $47 million to work making biomass more productive for fuels and chemicals. All in an effort, of course, to unhitch our economy from fossil fuels.

Switchgrass Credit: Steven Ausmus/USDA

Metabolix already has a way to make bio-based plastics (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA resins) from sugars, and has been doing it at commercial scale with agro partner Archer Daniels Midland. But it has also been spending a great deal of its resources upstream on the biomass end, and can grow switchgrass with PHA inside it.

 The DOE award will give the firm $6 million (actually, it’s $6,000,001. not sure what the extra buck is for) to, in their words “use high temperature conversion to produce denser biomass and other products that can be further processed to make fuels such as butanol, chemicals such as propylene and other materials to improve the economic competitiveness of future biorefineries.”

I will admit to not fully grasping the meaning of “to produce denser biomass” yet, but I’ll be looking out for more details. Still, this announcement hit 7 of my cleantech topic categories (see above!) so it’s well worth mentioning now.

Metabolix was one of the earlier cleantech firms to IPO (helpful to do so before  worldwide recession, is the lesson here). Laurence Alexander of Jeffries & Co. is a fan of the stock, rating the firm a “buy.” He had this to say in a note to clients about the DOE/Metabolix grant: “ We view the announcement as incrementally positive. It should help Metabolix strengthen its technology platform while reducing concerns that the early-stage research into the switchgrass PHA platform could represent a cash drain that detracts from the more timely PHA plastic and PHA-based chemicals platforms.”  Sounds like Metabolix will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, thanks to this announcement.

On a related note, the news value around the word “switchgrass” has been rather low of late. In this Google Trends chart, you can see little activity in last few years.

Google Trends for "Switchgrass" in search and news

A great deal of attention in the biofuels segment has focused on cellulosic waste materials (wood chips, corn cobs etc) or gassification of biomass. Switchgrass was hot when the nation was going to grow dedicated crops for bio-based energy. We’ll have to see if a new research push will bring it back into the public eye.

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.”

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.

More Plastics From Plants

If you’ve ever walked up to a potted plant, thinking it was real, and then discovered it was – gasp – made of plastic, then you’ve seen the kind of plant that Metabolix researchers dream about.

Recently, Metabolix published a paper describing their latest plant trials and efforts to get plants to, if not actually be entirely made of plastic, grow an industrially useful quantity of polymer inside their cells. In the trial, which used tobacco plants, the researchers upped the level of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)* in research crop tobacco to levels of up to 9% of the total dry plant weight. PHA levels of up to 17% were found in leaf tissue. The company figures its engineered tobacco plants produce 10 times more PHA bioplastic than in previously published reports.

Photo:Dale Callaham, Central Microscopy Facility, University of Massachusetts in Amherst

The result is probably better described, though, by the photo of a tobacco plant cell chock full of polymer blobs. One has to wonder what the upper limit would be for the percentage of polymer in a plant before it turns into the species more commonly found in the back of a greasy diner.

*Two bits of additional information: Metabolix says PHAs ”have a broad range of industrial applications as performance, biodegradable bioplastics and as renewable starting materials for the production of a number of existing specialty and commodity chemicals. As polymers, PHA bioplastics offer excellent performance in use and have the unique ability to biodegrade in a wide range of environments including compost, soil, wetlands, marine and anaerobic digestion facilities.”

And C&EN visited Metabolix last summer, you can read about it here.