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Cleantech Chemistry

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Syngenta to license gene tech to Agrivida

Agrivida plants.

Agrivida's modified switchgrass. Credit: Agrivida

Biotech start-up Agrivida has announced that it is now in a research alliance with Syngenta Ventures, the venture capital arm of agro-giant Syngenta. C&EN visited Agrivida in the summer to learn a bit about the company’s technology. Agrivida is working to develop versions of energy crops like corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, and sorghum that have enzymes enabling the breakdown of cellulose in the plant, which would decrease ethanol production costs and the need for expensive enzymes.

To keep the plants from turning to mush before harvest, Agrivida is also developing a protein switch called an intein, that would, in the words of company founder Jeremy Johnson, “has the ability to cleave itself out and reconnect the rest of the sequence” of genes that code for the enzyme.

The deal with Syngenta means that Agrivida will have access to crop technology and intellectual property in return for Agrivida equity. Back in the summer, cleantech analysts pointed out that a deal with a major agricultural firm – with access to a huge marketplace of farmers – would be the ideal next step for the firm.

Over the weekend, Agrivida’s scientists presented new experimental data at BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in Honolulu. The company reported that their engineered crops can reduce production costs by over 30 percent, and would allow ethanol producers to decrease enzyme loadings by over 75 percent, compared to today’s processes.

New York Times: Solyndra to close plant

Solyndra's CIGS solar inside glass tubes cast shadows on a rooftop. Credit: Solyndra

The New York Times reports that tubular thin-film solar maker Solyndra is shutting its first fabrication plant, now that it’s second plant is on-line. Solyndra was a high flyer in the cleantech space, raising oodles of private funding and a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

The Times reports the closure of the older plant means the loss of 40 permanent and 150 temporary jobs. Additionally, it takes a big bite out of the company’s planned capacity, more than halving it from 610 MW to 285-300 MW by 2013.

In the summer, Solyndra revealed some details about its cost structure when it filed for a possible IPO (the firm decided not to go public). At the time, many analysts pointed out that the firm, which makes modules from glass tubes containing a layer of  thin-film CIGs cells, would have a hard time competing with low cost polysilicon-based solar modules from China.

UConn Researchers Find New Biodiesel Feedstock*

Hemp plant, courtesy of University of Connecticut

*not legal in U.S.

No, it’s not that kind of cannabis, it’s the other kind. You know, the kind you make rope from — Cannabis sativa

, known as industrial hemp.

Still grown in Europe and Asia for its fiber, industrial hemp could be a non-food feedstock for biodiesel production, says Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut who led a recent study.

The plant, which the UConn press folks point out “grows like a weed” outshines some other biodiesel inputs like soy, in that it can grow in infertile soils without inputs such as water and fertilizer. It is also not a food crop, which gets growers out of the food versus fuel dilemma.

According to Parnas, hemp growers around the world could harvest hemp seeds, which are usually discarded, and make enough high quality biodiesel to run their entire operation.

Parnas and colleagues in UConn’s chemistry and plant sciences departments has received a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a feedstock-flexible biodiesel test production site to help commercialize patented technology developed at the University. No word yet on whether it will be located in Canada.

The Walmart-ization of Thin Film Solar?

Walmart is a name synonymous with affordable, or perhaps even cheap. The same cannot be said today for thin-film CIGS solar modules. CIGS stands for copper indium gallium selenide, the ingredients of what promises to be the only thin film technology that can compete with crystalline silicon on solar efficiency.

In an interesting development, Walmart said yesterday that it would work with SolarCity to put CIGS (and thin-film cadmium telluride) on roofs of dozens of stores in California and Arizona. That means a very mainstream company will be getting renewable energy from a non-mainstream source of solar power. The announcement is also an opportunity to check in to see how CIGS is doing in general.

Continue reading →

Solar Industry Could Use More Transparency

The non-profit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has released a report analyzing the sustainability of solar module manufacturing, and the results are quite interesting. Unfortunately, the coalition did not hear from many companies that it surveyed – it estimates that respondents to the survey (14 out of 60) represent about 24% of the 2008 module market share. Still, as it’s the first time the report has been issued, it’s a useful start.

Based on the responses, the STVC graded module makers on four broad sustainability metrics: extended producer responsibility and takeback, supply chain monitoring and green jobs, chemical use and life-cycle analysis, and disclosure. You can read more about the criteria on the coalition website.

Two important sustainability snags that the report exposed was the need for companies to plan to take back, recycle and otherwise handle end-of-life issues for their solar modules. Six companies reported setting aside financing for this. Another issue is the use of hazardous materials in the modules – the most common bad actors are lead and cadmium.

The largest producer to respond to the survey was First Solar, which received a fairly positive score of 67 points out of 100. But many solar firms we’ve heard a lot about recently did not respond to the survey including Nanosolar, Solyndra, SunPower, Suntech and Trina.

Is it time for solar module makers to begin to benchmark and disclose their sustainability efforts? Perhaps SVTC’s report will reach consumers and businesses who are trying to choose among the leading module producers. Or possibly this is a role that solar industry trade groups can take on, similar to the work the American Chemistry Council does with its Responsible Care program.