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Rivertop Makes Montana a Magnet

This dispatch from the American Cleaning Institute show is a guest post by Mike McCoy. Thanks Mike!

John Monks is moving to Montana.
That’s one of several changes precipitated by an impending round of funding for Rivertop Renewables, a biobased chemicals company headquartered in Missoula, Mont.

Monks has been Rivertop’s vice president of business development since May 2013. He came to the startup following stints at two larger industrial biotech firms, Genencor and DSM.

Monks and his wife now live in the Chicago area, but the pending infusion of venture capital will put Rivertop on solid financial footing, he says, and prepare it for life as a going commercial operation. Monks needs to be in Missoula to help make it happen.

Rivertop produces chemicals from biomass. What separates it from the firms Monks used to work for is that the conversion is carried out not by fermentation but via a chemical synthesis, in this case a carbohydrate oxidation developed by Donald E. Kiely, a University of Montana emeritus chemistry professor.

Glucaric acid made from glucose is Rivertop’s first product. Monks was at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last week to promote the chemical as a raw material for the detergents industry.

Rivertop says glucaric acid is a chelating agent that works almost as well as sodium tripolyphosphate did in laundry detergents and automatic dishwasher detergents. Phosphates were legislated out of U.S. laundry detergents decades ago and out of dishwasher detergents in 2010.

Detergent makers have come up with phosphate replacements, but they tend to be expensive or otherwise flawed. Monks says manufacturers are receptive to the idea of an efficacious and cost-effective alternative.

At present, Rivertop’s glucaric acid is being toll-produced by DTI, a contract manufacturer in Danville, Va., that can turn out about 8 million lb of the chemical per year. Although Monks won’t disclose more about the financing until it is completely nailed down in the next month or two, he does say the additional cash will allow output to increase further. Moreover, it should set Rivertop on a path to build its own commercial-scale glucaric acid facility, likely in cooperation with a partner.

Another thing the cash will do is allow Rivertop to double its workforce in Missoula from the present staff of 18. Monks is looking forward to his move to Montana, but he acknowledges that the location might not appeal to everyone. “Flying in and out of Missoula isn’t the easiest thing to do,” he says.

Cool Planet Wraps Up $60 Million Funding Round

Biomass to fuels firm Cool Planet has raised $60 million from venture backers in its fourth round of funding. Until now, two things had made Cool Planet unique in the biomass space – it attracted investment from Google Ventures, and its business model calls for small-scale, modular biorefineries.

Since venture backing for cellulosic fuels start-ups has been negligible lately, Cool Planet’s $60 million fund raise gives it a third unusual quality.

In some ways, Cool Planet is a bit like Khosla-backed KiOR – it relies on specialty catalysts to transform biomass (i.e. wood chips, agriculture waste) into drop-in, gasoline-like biofuels rather than ethanol like in most cellulosic fuel plants.

But Cool Planet sequesters the untransformed bits of biomass into what it calls biochar, which can be used as a soil enhancement in agriculture. Cool Planet did not invent the idea of biochar (which is sort of like charcoal), nor did it invent the idea of using it to boost soil productivity (through water and nutrient retention). But the carbon sequestration that biochar represents allows the company to advertise its fuel as carbon negative.

It’s not yet clear if farmers would adopt Cool Planet’s output, however. In fact, the company’s website says it is actively seeking partnerships to get this particular ball rolling. From the outside it is not clear to what degree profitability hinges on the sale of biochar.

Having a modular biorefinery sounds like an attractive concept, considering the module could be placed where biomass exists in significant quantities but would not be profitable to ship to a distant, huge biorefinery. Still, these facilities are not tiny; each “station” would produce 10 million gal per year of biofuel. And Cleantech Chemistry has not yet determined how the company plans to get the fuel output from these distributed outposts transported to a point of sale.

Cool Planet’s fund raising will be used in part to finalize engineering design for its first commercial facility as well as capital for construction in the Port of Alexandria, La. The company says it will be in operation before the end of 2014.

In addition to Google, Cool Planet has backing from North Bridge Venture Partners, Shea Ventures, BP, Energy Technology Ventures, and Excelon.

Harnessing Entropy

In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate.

That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on.

This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that.

But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid.

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved.

I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem.


No Magic In China’s Solar Industry

Sunday I picked up an actual print copy of the Washington Post. In the Business section was a feature by Steven Mufson on the rise and fall of Chinese solar firm Suntech – which was at one time the world’s largest producer of crystalline silicon solar panels. In mid March the firm defaulted on $541 million worth of convertible bonds.

(The story of Suntech’s founder and now-former CEO, Shi Zhengrong, is also captured in the feature. A true rags to riches tale.)

In the waning months of 2012, pundits were forcasting major financial problems for some of China’s humongous solar companies – but many expected that the government would prop them up with loans to keep them afloat. There were many reasons why it might have: China wants to hold on to its dominance in making solar modules for export, it has huge targets for domestic installations, it has a policy of subsidizing industrial expansion, and it can provide both cheap electricity and cheap financing.

Mufson explains how Suntech was caught up in a very expensive race to the bottom in solar module production – overcapacity (in expensive facilities) and rapidly shrinking margins, fueled unhelpfully by China’s green economy plans. The U.S. added to the woe by slapping a tariff on solar modules imported from China (oversupply set the stage for what trade officials like to call dumping).

Mufson writes:

Until now, policymakers in China have used subsidies to create a world-leading “green tech” industry that would push the country up the economic value chain. But green tech doesn’t guarantee thriving businesses. In the race for global solar supremacy, world manufacturing capacity has grown to 60 gigawatts, most of it in China. That outpaced solar demand, which is expected to reach about 35 gigawatts this year, enough to power about 26 million homes. So prices of photovoltaic panels have plummeted, and it will take three to five years for overcapacity to shrink, says Bill Wiseman, managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey’s Taipei office.

China has other very large solar producers in addition to Suntech and LDK. They also have Trina Solar and Yingli. Four huge vertically integrated module makers was at least two too many. Analysts will be watching margins and debt very carefully now that it is clear that China’s future financial support for solar companies is not guaranteed.

Science-y Advice for (potential) Entrepreneurs: Add this to your library

In addition to C&EN, Cleantech Chemistry’s household also receives Physics Today, the monthly magazine of the American Institute of Physics. The December issue contains an article – available free online – that is a must-read for any potential or current entrepreneur in the sciences.

The authors* interviewed 129 out of 192 founders and 16 other company officers at 91 startups in entrepreneurial clusters in 13 states. They examine where the firms’ technology came from and where their funding came from (and in what order). The interviews unearthed fascinating observations about working with venture capital and angel investors and how they differ regionally. The article also covers the different types of technology transfer programs at Universities and what it is like to work with them. It also discusses regional start-up cultures across the U.S.

As in this year’s C&EN special issue on chemistry entrepreneurs, the focus is on lessons learned. The Physics Today story includes a box titled “How to create an unsuccessful startup.”

In case you think that the situation of physics R&D and start-up culture is different than in chemistry – read this excerpt and see if it sounds familiar:

Because the large high-tech companies that once supported significant research have switched to development, the role of small startups as creators of innovative physics-based technology has become more important. Lita Nelsen, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, describing the general decline of the once-great industrial labs, noted that “we’re dependent on the universities to be pushing the frontier of knowledge because the research labs in industry are largely shut down.” She added that more than half of the MIT patents for really innovative, early-stage technology are being licensed to startups. According to Nelsen, once a startup has proven an innovative technology, “the large companies will then buy either the product line or the company, and that is a conscious strategy for acquiring new technology now because it reduces their risk.” For a proven technology, large companies sometimes pay 100 or even 1000 times what they would have paid had they licensed the same technology from a university at an early stage.

The article goes on to discuss the difference between what it calls “technology push” versus “market pull” companies and why the former is the more risky. Go check it out!

*Orv Butler is a historian at the American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics in College Park, Maryland. Joe Anderson is the associate director of the AIP history center and director of the AIP Niels Bohr Library and Archives in College Park.

The DOI for the Physics Today article

Risky business: A study of physics entrepreneurship

is: http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.1821


Testing Green Fracking Fluids

Natural gas company Cheasapeake Energy is testing new formulations of fluids for hydraulic fracturing that contain environmentally-benign ingredients, according to Bloomberg. This news caught my eye as I’ve been researching this and related shale gas development topics for many weeks.

In hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – millions of gallons of water, mixed with proppants, usually grains of sand, and small amount of chemicals, are injected deep into a gas well. Forcing this mixture into the horizontal portions of a well and into the shale formation fractures the rock and allows the gas to flow to the surface.

For the most part, the fluid’s job is to imbed the grains of sand into the fractures. The added chemicals do other things – for one thing, they prevent scale from forming in the fractures. In addition, well operators also use biocides to limit the amount of bacteria, which can clog up the works. Acid-producing bacteria can even damage the well casing. Another important element is friction reducers, to help the liquid and proppants reach farther into the shale. These are normally simple polymers.

There has been much public concern about possible environmental or health impacts from fracking chemicals. Now, many providers of chemicals that are used in fracking are swapping earlier formulations for ones made up of food-safe or GRAS compounds.

If you have any questions or comments about hydraulic fracturing or fracking chemicals feel free to put them in the comments – I’ll do my best to find answers or point you to helpful resources. One website that gives details about fracking chemicals is http://fracfocus.org/

A Graphic Illustration of the Target on the Back of the Chemical Industry

Several days ago I received an e-mail from the press office (press person?) at the Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the time I looked at it, thought “hmm… interesting” and set it aside. Been thinking about it off and on since. The crux of the information was this graphic:













A few thoughts that came to mind immediately were 1) Wow, look what a monster recession did to our industrial energy consumption and 2) That brick-colored stripe is rather tall.

The other two categories of energy consumers aside from industry are residential (people at home), commercial (businesses) and transportation. In 2011, industry was responsible for over 30% of total energy consumption, according to the EIA. Transportation is approximately a similar amount, and residential and commercial users split the rest.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I reflected on basic chemicals’ place in the lifecycle of a finished good – maybe a shampoo, or a carpet or a car – and the chunk of energy use it represents. A branded goods manufacturer that does a lifecycle analysis – say to measure energy use or emissions – would no doubt zero in on chemical inputs as a large contributor to its overall footprint.

Of course, mining and agriculture have their own energy footprints, as shown in the graphic. Obtaining any raw material will bring energy baggage with it.

The graphic also reinforced a message that my C&EN colleague Alex Scott recently wrote about in the magazine. He attended an event in Brussels called the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit. In his report, he writes that chemical industry representatives were chided for their “business-as-usual model” and told that other industries, including customers of the chemical industry, were beginning a trek toward zero targets for things like oil use and CO2 emissions. Should someone hold a similar event in the U.S., this illustration might appear in the presentation.


Ingredients of Consumer Backlash

Angry customers. No consumer products company or brand wants to be in a position of having to face consumers who have been told that their health and safety has come in second to company profits.

Firms can argue, with scientific studies in hand, that their products are perfectly safe, but once a company is forced to have that conversation, they are already at an uncomfortable disadvantage.

This week, the Twitterverse has served up controversies over cleaners, food, and personal care products. Though consumers often say they are concerned about global issues like climate change and water pollution, what really raises the temperature of debate is issues about products that people put in or on their bodies, or use in their homes. They may hear about something that sounds alarming first from activist groups – though often, news organizations pick up and amplify the criticisms.

Early in the week, the Environmental Working Group launched its 2012 Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Many, many mainstream cleaning products received grades of D or F. The American Cleaning Institute, a trade group for companies that make cleaning products, responded with a statement decrying “scare tactics” and a link to its own database of cleaning ingredients.

Also this week, Reuters reported on a skirmish in California over genetically modified sweet corn. Around a dozen anti-GMO protesters “stopped trucks from entering or leaving Monsanto’s Oxnard, California-based Seminis for nearly six hours.” Seminis is a seed company owned by Monsanto that has introduced the GM corn seeds.

Meanwhile, Seventh Generation, a green-targeted firm that sells mainly cleaning and paper products, is launching two lines of personal care products –first one for babies and another one for adults. Green ingredients supplier publication newhope360 has a feature on the new lines. The story makes it clear that Seventh Generation is moving into a market space that was created, in part, by recent plans by Johnson & Johnson to remove ingredients that can release 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde from its products.

This week also brought news of a backlash about a backlash. Meat supplier Beef Products, Inc. is suing ABC News for a whopping $1.2 billion in a defamation lawsuit. The company says it was defamed by ABC reports about its “lean finely textured beef.” News reports had borrowed the unlovely term “pink slime” from a USDA employee, and Beef Products says that news programs falsely said the product was unsafe.

None of these controversies are particularly  new, but they are clearly not simmering down, either. The article about Seventh Generation’s products made several mentions of green chemistry and bio-based chemicals. Advocacy organizations know that consumers are likely to adopt the precautionary principal when choosing food, cleaning products, and personal care items. Suppliers to these industries will need to closely study the ingredients of consumer backlash.

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.

Say Hello to Two New Microbial Employees

Give them a cozy place to live and plenty of food, and they will make fuel and chemicals without demanding a salary or a pension. They’re microbes – and just like with any workers, it’s important to find good ones to make a business successful.

Two new kinds of microbes may be putting on hard hats and punching time clocks in the renewable fuels and chemicals space, thanks to researchers working on separate projects at the University of Georgia and MIT.

University of Georgia scientist Janet Westpheling, a microbial geneticist in the Department of Genetics, and her colleagues have developed an enzyme tool to alter the DNA of a group of thermophilic anaerobic bacteria called Caldicellulosiruptor. These bacteria can munch on biomass directly, which make them interesting for streamlining the process for producing useful products from biomass.

According to UGa, the newly developed process means researchers can redesign Caldicellulosiruptor to make useful stuff like ethanol or polymers. It remains to be seen, of course, how well the modified bacteria do compared to the established competition (heat, enzyme and/or acid treatment followed by fermentation by yeast) to make ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks. If the microbes can withstand real-world processing conditions and cut out some steps, they may find job security.

Meanwhile, at MIT, researchers are busy stressing out a soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha in an effort to prepare it for a job making isobutanol. Christopher Brigham, in MIT’s biology department and his team know that when Ralstonia is deprived of nutrients such as nitrate or phosphate, it starts storing carbon in complex compounds, perhaps in order to store food for later. By engineering it to change the type of compound, Ralstonia could make fuel from carbon inputs such as CO2.

The modified bacteria would expel the compound – in this case isobutanol – in a continuous process that could be scaled up. This tends to sound favorable compared to normal batch processes. In the lab, Brigham’s group has been feeding the microbe fructose, but the focus is now on switching to CO2 as a feedstock.