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Big Companies Binging on Microbes

Microbes! They are tiny but powerful. And big companies are buying in – according to a wave of announcements that began late last week. Here are some highlights from my inbox.

Fuels

Amyris in Brazil

Amyris has begun production of biobased farnesene in Brazil

Amyris, which has long been talking about making biofuels – particularly diesel and jet fuel – from its biobased farnesene, will embark on a joint venture with French fuel company Total. Recently Amryis had pulled back from its fuel ambitions, but now it will move ahead with this 50/50 venture. Total is already an investor in Amyris and owns 18% of the firm’s commons stock. Where’s the microbe? Amyris uses engineered microbes to make farnesene from sugar.

Agriculture

Meanwhile, Monsanto and Novozymes will combine forces to develop and market biological crop products based on microbes. The deal includes a $300 million payment from Monsanto for access to Novozyme’s technology, which the firm has been building for the last seven years. Microbes have long been used as inoculates for nitrogen-fixing legume plants but in the last few years microbial products have been developed to help with phosophate uptake, to fight fungus and insects, and promote plant vigor and yield. Interestingly, Ag giant Monsanto only last year introduced a microbial platform. This deal sounds like a way to catch up.

Biobased chemicals

Some microbes can ferment gases and make desirable chemical intermediates. LanzaTech has been an innovator in this space so we’ll start with that company’s new deal with Evonik. The firms have a three-year research agreement to develop a route to biobased ingredients for specialty plastics. The feedstock will be synthesis gas (syngas) derived from waste. LanzaTech has already begun production at an earlier joint venture that produces ethanol from the industrial waste gases of a large steel mill in China.

Invista is probably best known for its synthetic fibers business (think Lycra and Coolmax) but it also has a chemical intermediates business. And it now has a deal with the UK Center for Process Innovation to develop gas fermentation technologies for the production of industrial chemicals such as butadiene. The two are eying waste gas from industry as a feedstock. Rather than spin the work as a sustainability play, Invista says it may significantly improve the cost and availability of several chemicals and raw materials that are used to produce its products.

 

Easy Holiday Shopping for Positive Solar News

The end of 2013 is shaping up to be merry for the solar industry. It’s been a tough few years – as European governments cut back on incentives, inventories of solar panels, cells, and even raw materials started to pile up. But all that is getting sorted out, and a bunch more positive news is starting to point to a happy 2014 and beyond.

Japan solar plant

A 70MW solar installation in Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture.

Demand for solar in China, Japan, the U.S. and even Europe has been strong since the summer. The pull has been felt througout the supply chain, but is not likely to be so strong that solar will become more expensive for end-users.

One sad tale this year has been a trade war between the developed home countries of some solar makers (in Europe and the U.S.) and China. But it looks like the compromise that the EU and China reached in July will stick, says Bloomberg. Perhaps those discussions will serve as a model for U.S.-China relations.

Speaking of the U.S., In October, 12 new solar installations accounted for 504 MW or 72.1 percent of all new electricity capacity last month. For the year, solar’s share is more like 21%. The Earthtechling blog digs into numbers from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Solar companies are sending positive signals to investors – and company stock has been soaring, points out Dana Blankenhorn at The Street.

At Lux Research, analyst Ed Cahill is taking a longer view. He says that solar will become competitive with natural gas by 2025, or if gas prices are between $4.90 and $9.30 MMBtu, perhaps as early as 2020. Apparently natural gas is a helpmate to solar – because using both together “can accelerate adoption and increase intermittent renewable penetration without expensive infrastructure improvements.”

Cahill says solar will become broadly competitive across the globe and that solar system prices will fall to $1.20 per W, from $1.96 per W in 2030 as modules get more efficient. One trend from the past will continue to dog the solar industry – as countries (and in the U.S., states) change policies, the industry will continue to see ups and downs. [Here's a press release about the report, along with a map]

M&G Paves the Way for Coke’s PlantBottle in China

Cleantech Chemistry thanks C&EN colleague Marc Reisch for contributing this news about biobased chemicals.

M&G Chemicals, a unit of Italy’s Gruppo Mossi & Ghisolfi, plans to build a $500 million biorefinery in China to make ethanol and the polyester raw material mono-ethylene glycol from 1 million metric tons of biomass per year. The facility in Fuyang, Anhui Province, China, will be four times larger than M&G’s recently commissioned Crescentino, Italy-based biorefinery when it is open in 2015.

To be built in a joint venture with minority partner Guozhen Group, a Chinese energy and real estate conglomerate, the Fuyang refinery will use Proesa technology from Beta Renewables, a joint venture partly owned by M&G which is also a polyethylene terephthalate maker.

M&G’s CEO Marco Ghisolfi says the Fuyang refinery “is the first act of a green revolution that M&G Chemicals is bringing to the polyester chain to provide environmental sustainability.” The company’s entry into China will ultimately position it to supply PET to firms such as beverage maker Coca-Cola which have advanced the development of renewably-sourced bottles, among them Coke’s own “PlantBottle.”

Coke currently buys ethanol-based ethylene glycol from India Glycols to make a PET bottle that is nearly 30% biomass derived. To increase feedstock availability, last year Coke formed a partnership with India’s JBF Industries to build a 500,000 metric-ton-per-year bio-ethylene glycol plant in Brazil, also set to open in 2015.

While the JBF plant will use sugarcane and sugarcane-processing waste as feedstock, M&G’s China facility will be based on wheat straw and corn stover. So M&G’s plant has the added virtue of depending on a non-food feedstock source.

But the ethics of using one feedstock crop versus another, or of using biomass versus petrochemical feedstocks, might not matter if consumers don’t care. At the BioPlastek Forum, a conference held in June, Coke, Ford Motor, and yogurt makers Danone and Stonyfield Farm told bioplastic makers that most consumers are unwilling to pay higher costs for bioplastics (C&EN, July 15, page 18).

And while the large M&G and JBF plant may have the economies of scale to drive down bio-based PET costs, they’ll encounter headwinds from petrochemical-based ethylene glycol makers. Lux Research senior analyst Andrew Soare points to the spate of ethylene and derivatives plants planned in the U.S. based on low-cost natural gas. M&G itself, for instance, is building a 1 million metric-ton-per-year PET polymer plant in Corpus Christi, Texas.

However, M&G will be challenged to make cost competitive ethylene glycol in China given the competition expected from U.S. petrochemical producers, Soare says.

Little Green Feedstocks

It sounds like something from a greenskeeper’s nightmare – certain folks have plans to grow algae and dandelions on purpose

, and in large quantities.

Algenol's Paul Woods and his cyanobacteria. Credit: Algenol

Algenol’s Paul Woods and his cyanobacteria. Credit: Algenol

Firstly, in the golf course-choked state of Florida, Algenol CEO Paul Woods is scouting a location for a $500 million algae-to-fuels plant. The company was founded and has been operating in the southern part of the state for years now. Its claim to fame is cheap ethanol made from cyanobacteria in a custom-designed bioreactor. Woods does not, as far as I know, have plans to re-purpose stagnant water traps for the purpose of growing his feedstock.

But Florida, though it is sunny and warm, might have missed out on this slimy opportunity. In recent months, Woods questioned the state’s commitment to biofuels. For example, Governor Rick Scott repealed a state law requiring 10% ethanol in gasoline. But now, according to Fort Myers ABC 7 News, the company has been persuaded to build in its home state – apparently the estimated 1,000 jobs was just the ticket to getting a warmer welcome. Algenol needs to be sited near a major CO2 source (i.e., factory or power plant emissions) and says potential partners have come forward.

Meanwhile, it’s called the Russian Dandelion, though it grows in Germany. This common lawn scourge is bringing about not curses, but praise, for its rubber producing capability. Tire makers are enthused about its white latex sap. The goo is expected to give the subtropical rubber tree a bit of competition. Making rubber from dandelions is not a new idea, but has been given new life by a project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.

Russian dandelions, growing in Germany. Credit: Fraunhofer Institute

Russian dandelions, growing in Germany. Credit: Fraunhofer Institute

Fraunhofer scientists, in a collaboration with folks from tire firm Continental are working on a production process for making tires from the dandelions. In addition to the manufacturing process, the researchers are also using DNA markers to grow new varieties of the plant with higher rubber yields.

The project sounds kind of cute but the researchers behind it are dead serious. The partners have already begun a pilot project and plans are afoot to move to industrial scale. According to them, the first prototype tires made from dandelion rubber will be tested on public roads over the next few years.

You can read an earlier post on the history of dandelion rubber here.

EPA’s Magic Number for Cellulosic Biofuels

It’s going to be 6 million gallons. That is how much cellulosic biofuel EPA’s research (crystal ball?) shows will be produced in the U.S. this year, and what fuel blenders, who live by the Renewable Fuels Standard, will have to put in their product.

EPA’s final rule on this question was published today. And the text includes a remarkable figure: “From 2007 through the second quarter of 2012 over $3.4 billion was invested in advanced biofuel production companies by venture capitalists alone.”

Egads. Anyway, for at least one more year, cellulosic biofuel will be the black-footed ferret of fuel types, which is to say, exceedingly rare. By comparison there will be over 16 billion gal of regular biofuel (like the stuff made from corn and soybeans) this year.

The 6 million figure comes from output from two sources – the largest is Kior’s Columbus, MS plant, which is projected to make between 5 or 6 million gal of gasoline and diesel from woody biomass using a special kind of catalytic cracking technology. The remainder will be produced by Ineos Bio (see the below post).

I note that the Kior facility’s output is not ethanol and so nicely side-steps the issue of the “blend-wall”, which affects ethanol producers. For 2014, however, the fact that most advanced biofuels are ethanol will cause the EPA some RFS problems. EPA is now saying that there will be changes:

EPA does not currently foresee a scenario in which the market could consume enough ethanol sold in blends greater than E10, and/or produce sufficient volumes of non-ethanol biofuels to meet the volumes of total renewable fuel and advanced biofuel as required by statute for 2014. Therefore, EPA anticipates that in the 2014 proposed rule we will propose adjustments to the 2014 volume requirements, including the advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel categories.

We expect that in preparing the 2014 proposed rule, EPA will estimate the available supply of cellulosic biofuel and advanced biofuel volumes, assess the ethanol blendwall and current infrastructure and market-based limitations to the consumption of ethanol in gasoline-ethanol blends above E10, and then propose to establish volume requirements that are reasonably attainable in light of these considerations and others as appropriate

Ineos Bio – First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in U.S.

The prize for the first company to get a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant up and running in the U.S. goes to Ineos Bio. Ineos Bio is a Swiss firm, a subsidiary of the chemical company Ineos.

The facility is located in Vero Beach, Fla. and has a capacity of 8 million gal of ethanol per year. It also produces 6 MW of renewable biomass power. Vero Beach is on the Eastern coast of the state (a bit more than halfway down), near Port St. Lucie.

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Folks following cellulosic ethanol might have thought the U.S. would be the first in the world to get a cellulosic ethanol plant, but that distinction goes to Italy, where Beta Renewables owns a 20 million gal per year facility running on wheat straw and giant reed (Arundo donax).

The feedstock for the Vero Beach facility is “vegetative and wood waste.”  I’m hoping to learn a bit more about what’s going in there. Because Ineos Bio’s front end process involves gasification, it is likely not terribly picky about the biomass – apparently it has converted vegetative and yard waste, and citrus, oak, pine, and pallet wood waste.

Projecting when the cellulosic ethanol industry will really take off has historically been a fools’ errand. But clearly, having two facilities in existence is infinitely more than zero, which is what we had in 2012. You can review my feeble attempt to forecast the 2013 crop of ethanol makers and check out the list of other facilities set to come online soon.

Solar Trade Tariffs Are A Drag

Remember that old school-yard comeback? “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”? It looks like the unfair trade  claims that the U.S. and Europe lobbed at China’s solar industry have bounced back and stuck.

Last October, the U.S. Commerce Dept. made good on a months-long threat to impose a 24-36% tariff on solar panels imported from China. And last week, China completed the tit for tat by putting a tariff on U.S.-made polysilicon, the main raw material used for solar cells. [h/t Washington Post]

Suntech solar panels

The U.S. slapped a tariff on Chinese-made solar panels. Suntech’s was the highest. Credit: Suntech

Originally, the U.S. accused China of unfair trade practices – saying the government heavily subsidized the industry and manufacturers were selling modules at less than the cost of production, a practice known as dumping. The EU took similar action early this summer.

China pretty quickly started to point out that the U.S. has given large grants to polysilicon producers, which has helped them quickly build huge new, more efficient production facilities. Those facilities export a lot of polysilicon to China. C&EN has covered this part of the industry pretty closely – both Hemlock Semiconductor (majority owned by Dow Corning) and Wacker Chemie had big expansion plans, some of which are now on hold.

So let’s review. Tariffs don’t tend to take an unfair situation and make it fair. What they do reliably produce is uncertainty and higher prices – at a time when what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but cheap, renewable energy (well, and love, too).

The general idea is that the solar panel tariff will protect U.S.-based manufacturers of solar panels, but frankly, we lost that war a long time ago. At the time the original complaint was lodged, China already had a 2/3 global market share. Will any of the solar companies that folded because they couldn’t compete on price now re-open their doors?

It has truly been an awful downward spiral for developed-world solar makers. Trying to stay in business while panel prices plummeted was like trying to catch a falling knife. But in the time that was happening, guess what industry was booming in the U.S.? Solar power! That is, the projects built to create electricity from the sun. Cheap panels plus renewables mandates and tax incentives magically created several utility scale solar farms. [Take that, shale gas!]

And while the U.S. doesn’t compete very well with China on commodity crystalline silicon solar panels, we do lead the market in new and efficient types of inverters, which convert DC current from the panel to the AC current that runs your TV. More demand for cheap solar panels has meant a boom time for makers of inverter equipment.

U.S. companies that innovate can still make a buck in solar these days. But it is a mature, consolidated industry and not every player is going to stay afloat, regardless of where they do their manufacturing.

 

Choppin’ Broccoli

In the quest for chemicals and fuels made from biomass, there are a few important black boxes that make it difficult to compare different companies’ business models and likelihood of success. One of them is the process by which a particular facility obtains sugars from its biomass feedstock.

In many cases, the first step is expensive, but low-tech – chopping up the stuff. This is the part that reminds me of Choppin’ Broccoli, the Saturday Night Live song as performed by Dana Carvey. Since cellulosic ethanol is sort of an offshoot of corn ethanol, it’s helpful to imagine how different it is to process a corn cob or stalk or an entire sugar cane, compared to grinding up a starchy corn kernel. Getting sugar from cellulose is difficult enough, getting the cellulose away from the clutches of a plant’s lignin first requires heavy machinery to chop it into little pieces.

So say you have tidy chipped up pieces of biomass. What do you do then? Like the SNL song, it ain’t pretty. Generally it requires some combination of thermochemical assaults to get the sugar out. Steam, alkali-acid washes, and pricey enzymes… In an otherwise green business, the pretreatment steps use energy and possibly chemicals that you wouldn’t want to spill.

Since pretreatment of biomass has a lot to do with both costs and the yield of sugars from feedstock, it is a busy area of research. An article by Chris Hanson in the appropriately named Biomass Magazine delves into some intriguing ideas. To release the useful cellulose from lignin, researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are investigating ionic liquids. Instead of using a traditional, two-stage alkali-acid pretreatment, a dose of butadiene sulfone got the job done in one step, according to U. of Illinois scientist Hao Feng. Another major benefit is that the butadiene sulfone can be recovered and recycled.

In California, the JBEI has been experimenting with imidazolium chloride. It has succesfully obtained sugar yields of 95% from mixed feedstocks and recycled 95% of the ionic liquid.

And a company called Leaf Energy has been studying a glycerol pretreatment method. Compared to acid pretreatments, the company says their method gets more sugars faster by dissolving lignin with a relatively inexpensive reagent with low temperature and standard pressure.

The goal with improving pretreatment steps is to bring down the cost of sugar from cellulose so that it is not more expensive than sugar from corn or sugar cane. Maybe if major cellulosic ethanol producers take up these technologies, we’ll have a better window into how they get the sugar out.

 

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.

Electric-vehicle Batteries are Like Olives…

Sometimes  while I’m reading a standard press release about something that I thought I understood kind of,  I come across a bit of a gap in my knowledge. This week, Nissan says it has opened its lithium ion battery manufacturing plant in Tennessee. The release states, “The first batteries produced at the plant have completed the required aging process and are now ready to receive their first charge.”

Um… what the what? Do these things need to be put on a shelf and cured like olives?

Nissan helpfully includes a really nice graphic describing the manufacturing process, most of which does sound familar to me. In the fourth flow-chart box, after the electrolyte is injected with what looks like a hypodermic needle, the text explains “Cells are aged to allow the cell chemistry to be properly formed.”  Then they go on to be tested, trimmed to size and charged.

If you are a battery geek, I’d love to hear your idea of what the chemistry formation is and what it does for the battery.

My only guess is that the pause is needed for the formation of the solid electrolyte interface (SEI) on the anode – or negative electrode. This layer is formed with the help of the electrolyte (and there are SEI additives for electrolytes to make the process better). It protects the surface of the anode from the degrading environment of the battery when it is recharged. The SEI layer may be composed of various stuff, depending on the particular materials used in the battery but are commonly Li2CO3, LiOH, LiF, or Li2O.

Nissan explains its battery manufacturing process: