↓ Expand ↓

Cleantech Chemistry

» About This Blog

Category → Manufacturing

Avoid The Regrettable Substitution

“Avoid the regrettable substitution” almost sounds like advice you’d find in a fortune cookie (and is good advice to follow in many aspects of life), but it is actually the driving theme behind a new tool to help companies formulate or use less toxic products. Imagine a company that replaces a plasticizer in their package with something – anything – that’s not called bisphenol A, only to later discover that their chosen replacement is an endocrine disruptor. Woops.

The name on the container containing the plasticizer – the Brand – is not likely the entity that is formulating the stuff the container is made of. But it’s the Brand that stands to lose if there is a regrettable substitution. So a group of advocacy organizations and businesses called BizNGO have gotten together and designed a protocol to help companies work with material suppliers to make sure that better really is better.

The BizNGO Chemical Alternatives Assessment Protocol is a step by step guideline to help companies navigate information about competing alternatives. Until everyone has access to full data sets on toxicity, exposure, and health and environmental effects it may make its mark as a tool that helps companies realize how much information about their products is missing. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the same group publishes a Business Case for Federal Chemicals Reform.

News coverage about the effects on human health or the environment of things like BPA or flame retardants often have a “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of structure to them. On the one hand BPA can leach out of water bottles or food cans and be ingested by consumers. On the other hand, BPA helps make containers more safe than they may otherwise be. On the one hand, BPA may cause human heath effects, on the other, maybe not so much, and besides, there are few obvious replacements. And so on. Rather than go around in circles, the protocol suggests a particular order of operation for assessing alternatives that is written from the business point of view.

BizNGO launched the tool today – the group held a meeting for its members in Washington, DC. In addition, it has published a prelude to a new tool, called Principles for Sustainable Plastics that will help companies made decisions of what “green” attributes of plastics they should be aiming for – biobased? recycled?

Mark Rossi leads the group, and he says the businesses most active in BizNGO are a rather diverse lot – from retailer Staples to healthcare provider Catholic Healthcare West, to manufacturers of specialty construction materials. They started a few years ago with a first principle: know and disclose chemical products as well as any hazards. Since then, along with efforts by companies like Walmart and HP, companies far back in the supply chain have begun using tools (like Green Screen from Clean Production Action, which is also part of BizNGO) to disclose the chemical components of their products to their downstream customers. It’s a trend that is likely to pick up steam.

 

 

Qteros Regroups

Last Friday, press reports began to circulate that cellulosic ethanol start-up Qteros had fired its CEO John McCarthy, laid off a bunch of staff, and may be for sale. I was intrigued as I had written a bit about the company in the past, and realized, in retrospect, that I hadn’t heard much about it lately.

In fact, it appears that Qteros is in a bit of a huddle and may change the scope of its future plans. I asked the new CEO, Mick Sawka, formerly the company’s senior vice president of engineering and commercial development if he could update me. By e-mail he replied that “Qteros has reduced its staff and John McCarthy has stepped down as CEO. … Based on our data and that of our strategic partner, Praj Industries, we remain confident that we have one of the best process and economic routes to cellulosic ethanol production. Under our new leadership we continue to develop our process.”

Praj Industries is an Indian firm focused on engineering for biobased ethanol. It wants to expand into cellulosic feedstocks.

The partnership was announced early in January, just a day before the firm disclosed it had raised $22 million in the first part of a C round of venture capital funding. At that time, the firm implied it planned to get more investments and proceed to commercialization. It sounds like the scope of the firm’s plans may have narrowed a bit. Cleantech Chemistry will keep an ear out for more information.

I wrote about Qteros’ former CEO John McCarthy back in February of 2010, when he had just taken the helm. Two other firms, Mascoma (also in cellulosic ethanol) and Segetis (in bio-based chemicals) had brand new CEOs at the same time. In all three cases, the new CEO’s were experienced hands who were brought in to guide the biobased firms to commercialization.

Qteros is not the only one of the three that has been quiet this year. Segetis’ most recent press release came out Feb. 14 and is about a deal with Method (a household cleaner firm) to develop a tub and tile cleaner made from bio-based molecules. Meanwhile, in September, Mascoma filed for an IPO worth up to $100 million – though it has not yet begun selling stock. Both firms have the same CEOs as they did when I wrote about them in 2010 –  Atul Thakrar is at Segetis and William J. Brady is still in charge at Mascoma.

 

DuPont’s Cellulosic Plans

DuPont has been digesting its acquisition of Danisco for a while now, and has sent out an update about what used to be called DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol – now shortened, as you might guess, to DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol. In a press release, DuPont says the effort will now be led by Steven J. Mirshak, who will scoot over from his position as president of DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products.

Field day visitors check out switchgrass at a farm in Vonore, Tenn. Credit: UT Institute of Agriculture, P. McDaniels

The firm is still planning to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa. Like another Iowa cellulosic ethanol plant being built by corn ethanol producer Poet, DuPont also is pushing a parallel effort to gather up the corn stover needed as a feedstock. It is a part of something called the Stover Collection Project, with Iowa State University.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, otherwise known as DuPont’s demonstration facility in Vonore, Tenn., the company “continues to make advancements” in preparation for scale-up, though we don’t learn what those are. Nearby, DuPont partner firm Genera Energy (which is connected to the University of Tennessee) is harvesting test fields of switchgrass. Genera held a recent field day where the company showed visitors the switchgrass varieties as well as the equipment used to harvest them.

We here at Cleantech Chemistry will be monitoring  progress toward large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol. As a recent report from the National Academies has pointed out, the U.S. is way, way behind  where it is supposed to be this year in producing the stuff.

First Solar Explains Itself

When a publicly-traded company issues a curt press release – just in advance of a quarterly earnings report –  saying “Effective immediately, [insert name]  is no longer serving as Chief Executive Officer, and the Board of Directors thanks him for his service to the company,” shareholders may fear that something unfortunate is happening.

If that company is a solar firm, shareholders may even worry that their firm will be the next [insert name of bankrupt solar firm].  But it turns out that is not the case at thin-film solar biggie First Solar. The Arizona firm has replaced recently departed CEO Rob Gillette with interim chief Mike Ahearn. Ahearn, in a conference call with investors and analysts, said it was due only to a lack of fit, and not due to anything improper. Ahearn has been closely connected to the firm for years – serving as CEO from August 2000 to September 2009 and board chairman from October 2009 to December 2010.

The firm even released its earnings statement a few days early to help keep down panic. The results, and the remarks from executives, show that the scary stuff going on at First Solar is the same scary stuff happening across the industry – namely inventory overhang due to subsidy cuts in Europe, and sharply declining prices from crystalline silicon producers in China. First Solar built its business – making thin film cadmium telluride modules – on low cost. But pricing competitiveness is now squeezing the firm’s margins.

First Solar is still making money. In the third quarter it racked up a bit over $1 billion in revenues – up 26% year over year, and it had $197 million in net income, an 11% increase from last year’s third quarter. But, the inventory problems and cost competition has led the firm to lower its EPS outlook for the year by $2.20 to $6.50-$7.50 per share.

More interestingly for solar-watchers was a change of strategy outlined by Ahearn. Previously the firm had been deploying a graph showing how it planned to rapidly expand production – including with a new facility in Vietnam. But now the firm will be redirecting that spending toward R&D (to decrease its modules cost per watt) and toward opening new markets – such as in India, the Middle East, North Africa, and China – and away from a dependence on European markets where changing/shrinking subsidies can make or break a solar company.

One dig on First Solar’s products has been that the thin film modules are slightly less efficient than competing cyrstalline silicon. In the past, First Solar’s cost advantage more than made up the difference, but to keep that edge, the company will have to move rapidly to roll out efficiency improvements across all of its production lines. So far in the fourth quarter, the firm says its average efficiency has reached 12%, while its best lines are up to 12.4%.  The average cost per watt is creeping down only slowly – to 74 cents per watt. The firm made a bold claim that it would reach the mid 60s by the end of 2012.

Nevertheless, it is clear from listening to First Solar’s plans for 2012 that severe price competition in the solar space will be much like death and taxes for some time to come. One interesting way the firm is capturing growth is by taking on project work for utility-scale solar installations. In fact, its excess inventory in the fourth quarter will likely be totally absorbed by two new projects the firm is working on now.

I haven’t drilled down to try and figure out how much profit is captured in these projects, but on a sales basis, the firm booked $800 million of its $3 billion or so 2011 revenue from project work. Analysts were keen to learn how much revenue projects would bring in 2012, but executives weren’t ready to make any projections. I mentioned this turn in strategy for First Solar in a recent story on the rise in solar installations in the U.S.

Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt

Dow Chemical, maker of the Solar Shingle, has been awarded a $12.8 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Energy to fund building integrated solar products program. The aim of the funding is clear in the name of the DOE program “Extreme Balance-of-System Hardware Cost Reductions.” [note: Maybe not quite clear enough - I added the hyphens to help you figure out what Extreme is supposed to refer to.]

Dow's Solar Shingles. Credit: Dow Chemical

In short, DOE wants to bring down the installed cost of solar power to $2 per watt – without subsidies. Currently, it’s the upfront cost of installing solar panels that puts the breaks on the amount of installed solar in the U.S. Most solar systems are designed to last upwards of 20 years (most experts say you can count on your panels to work for 25 years), but the costs can mean the payback period can stretch out to more than 15 years, depending on where you live.  

Sharp offers an awesome and slightly addicting solar cost/payback/savings calculator on its website. Drop whatever you are doing right now (it’s the Friday before Labor Day, people, no one expects you to do real work anyway) and go here: http://sharpusa.cleanpowerestimator.com/sharpusa.htm

All you need to do is put in your zip code and the amount of your electricity bill and then you can spend a while fiddling with the variables. The default cost per watt of solar power is $7 per watt (or $7,000 per kW as shown in the calculator).

With my particulars, a 3,000 kW system would trim my power bill enough to pay for itself in a bit over 16 years. I’d only pay about 1/3rd the full cost of the system (or over $7,000) due to state and Federal tax rebates. So that shows two things: government subsidies are required to make solar even sort of make sense at current prices, and that $2 per watt sounds like a reasonable price target. If you lived in Arizona your calculation would likely be different.

Give it a try!

DuPont gets Solar Blues from Innovalight

What is silicon ink? Is it magical pixie dust? Innovalight, maker of silicon ink, is a venture capital-funded company in Silicon Valley that was just acquired by DuPont. The announcement came Monday and I’ve been wanting to post about it but a small problem held me back.

Innovalight's silicon ink. Credit: Innovalight

I had no idea how Innovalight’s product works. I knew what it is though – it’s ink (and it sure looks like ink) made up of silicon nanoparticles suspended in chemicals. It can be screen printed in the same assembly line used to manufacture crystalline silicon solar cells.

The reason a manufacturer would add this extra step is simple. It increases the cell’s ability to capture energy from sunlight by 1%. 

Since Monday I’ve learned a bit more – enough to burden blog readers with my still incomplete understanding. Adding a precision-printed design of this ink to crystalline silicon solar cells allows the cell to capture more energy from the blue wavelength of sunlight. This sentence is where I would describe exactly how the ink makes that happen, so let’s pretend I did that.

Solar cells are generally hampered in their efficiency by an inability to capture energy from the full spectrum of light. Like the human eye, they do best capturing visible light. But that leaves a wealth of radiation in the UV and infrared part of the spectrum un-captured. Thus the 19% upper limit on even very efficient cells.

Interestingly, even within the visible spectrum, blue light is not well captured. My colleague Mitch Jacoby tells me that blue light is energetic enough for a solar cell to absorb and create a flow of energized electrons, but that the high energy electron and the “hole” left behind re-combine before they hit the conducting grids and without creating a current. Many people in many places like NREL have been studying ways to keep them separated and have them move to the negative and positive current collectors.

That’s why the DuPont press release about the acquisition talks about Selective Emitter solar cells. In spite of the capitalization, the term seems a bit misleading to me, because absorbing is what they’re going for. Anyway, selective emitter approaches involve an adaptation to the silicon, the surface and/or the conducting grid to make those electrons from the blue light migrate efficiently.

Innovalight’s value proposition is that solar cell manufacturers can make selective emitters in their current process by adding a silicon ink screen printing step after texturing the mono crystalline silicon.

According to the press release, “Selective Emitter technology could represent 13 percent of crystalline silicon solar cell production by 2013 and up to 38 percent by 2020.”

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.

Continue reading →

… and it’s a Go for Poet’s Cellulosic Project

Yesterday Poet Energy announced that it has a conditional DOE commitment for a $105 million loan guarantee for the cellulosic ethanol plant it plans to construct in Emmetsburg, Iowa. That’s two days after I posted (below) that the company was waiting on just such an outcome. Thanks for reading my blog, Steven Chu!

Poet has been working with DOE to secure more funding for this plant, which will be co-located with an existing corn ethanol plant owed by the company. In 2007 it received a grant from DOE that was supposed to help out through the first years of design and construction. It appears that the details for that plant haven’t changed – it will produce 25 million gal a year from corn cobs, leaves, husks and some stalks.  It is scheduled for completion in 2013.

Following these projects requires a fairly strong memory. When I first wrote about the project in 2009, it was to see what had happened since the 2007 grants were issued. Poet’s project was looking like a pretty sure bet. But clearly the loan guarantee was a necessity – Poet was originally going to have the plant running this year, but was waiting on more financing.

What’s interesting is what the company has been doing in the meantime. A few numbers give you a sense of the scale of a cellulosic ethanol plant. Poet built a 22-acre holding area – called an integrated stackyard – just to store the biomass delivered by farmers.  The collection has begun – 85 farmers brought 56,000 tons of biomass to the site last year. That’s less than one-fifth of what the plant will use up in one year.

Farmers will glean about 20-25% of the waste biomass from their fields to feed the mill. Each acre would provide 1 ton of biomass. To provide the yearly allotment for the plant would require 300,000 acres of harvested corn farmland.  Poet has been working with soil scientists to study the impact of the gleanings on soil quality – and so far have found it to be “consistent with good soil management.”

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.”