Bio-Based Chemicals East Conference Review—Reason for Optimism
by Kyle Sherry (Advanced Biofuels USA) The Bio-Based Chemicals East conference brought together members of the emerging biochemicals industry—world-class scientists, global agribusiness and chemical industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and governmental representatives—to create the connections necessary for the renewable chemical industry to grow. The conference was held from September 13-15, 2010 at the Crowne Plaza Boston North Shore in Danvers, Massachusetts. It began with concurrent symposia on Monday the 13th titled, “End-Markets & Applications for Bio-Based Products Symposium” and “Strategic Science Symposium.” The second and third days of the conference consisted of the “Cutting Edge Bio-Conversion Technology Showcase.” Advanced Biofuels USA participated in the conference as a supporting organization.
It’s no question that fossil fuel resources are diminishing, and it’s necessary to pursue alternative, sustainable pathways to products traditionally derived from petroleum. George Huber, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, opined that everything made from petroleum today will be made from renewable resources in the future. Extensive research throughout the world focuses on means to derive useful, bio-based chemicals from sugars in edible and inedible plant matter. These products include biofuels, replacements for traditional diesel and gasoline fuel that can be combusted to obtain useful energy. The Bio-Based Chemicals East conference, however, focused on technologies to create renewable replacements for commodity and specialty chemicals.
Commodity chemicals include plastics, chemical intermediates that can react to form desirable specialty chemicals, and other chemicals with large markets. Several companies represented at the Bio-Conversion Technology Showcase discussed technologies in this sector, such as Genencor (bioisoprene), Avantium (furans), Anellotech (aromatics), and Metabolix (bioplastics). Specialty chemicals have smaller markets and are often extremely useful, with innovative and desirable material properties, and accordingly are of higher value than biofuels and commodity chemicals. Applications of specialty chemicals include, but are certainly not limited to, lubricants, adhesives, surfactants, and coatings. Speakers presented emerging specialty chemicals technologies at various stages of development, including representatives of Myriant Technologies (succinic acid), Allylix (terpenes), and OPXBIO (bioacrylic). Richard Burlingame of Allylix noted that bio-based chemicals may be more desirable products than biofuels in that it’s easier for them to be cost-competitive with the same products from petrochemicals. David Sudolsky from Anellotech conceded that there are smaller markets for commodity and specialty chemicals than biofuels, but these markets are still huge.
While we’re used to hearing about all the technical hurdles in the way of the development and commercialization of green technologies and about competing with nonrenewable existing technologies, several advantageous features of bio-based chemical processing give reason for optimism in the bio-based chemicals market. Steve DiBiase of Elevance Renewables and Greg Coil of Qteros discussed the flexibility in their companies’ biochemical platforms, such that they can produce an enormous range of chemicals and choose their ultimate products based on whichever markets are most attractive.
Rina Singh of the Biotechnology Industry Organization discussed the cost advantages of synthetic biological solutions as opposed to petroleum—the steps required to produce the same chemicals can be dramatically reduced, which reduced fixed capital and operating expenses. She cited DSM’s production of cephalexin, which replaces thirteen chemical operations in traditional petroleum-based production with one fermentation step and two enzyme steps. These sorts of advantages, along with the opportunity for a dependable energy stream free of foreign oil that dramatically reduces greenhouse gas emissions, leave little doubt that renewable chemicals will form a substantial part of America’s chemical industry in the not-so-distant future.
It should be established that while some of these technologies for the time being work with edible feedstock sources, all ultimately plan that their feedstocks will not compete with food resources by utilizing cellulosic sources. Tuesday’s session included four presentations from those focusing on pretreatment technologies for cellulosic biomass, that when optimized will allow bio-based chemical producers focusing on the back end of their processing technologies to integrate cellulosic feedstocks into their processes. Cellulosic and lignocellulosic plant matter must be pretreated to isolate the sugars that are easily accessible in sugar cane and can then be subjected to biochemical operations. There are certainly lessons to be learned in the scale-up of bioenergy production from the sugar ethanol industry in Brazil, profiled by Glaucia Souza in Monday’s session. As government investment in biofuels and bio-based chemicals is perceived as unenthusiastic by many, Alif Saleh from Myriant Technologies proposed that government officials need to be educated about the environmental benefits of biochemicals from second generation sources. He sees officials as scared off by early unsuccessful investments and the negative public stigma of competing with the food markets.
Much discussion throughout the conference was dedicated to means of reducing risk in scaling up processes successful in the laboratory to pilot and commercial-scale operations. Many companies launch with the exclusive licensing rights to technologies developed from research at laboratories, such as Anellotech, Novomer, and Elevance Renewables. To scale up such small-scale processes requires testing at several intermediate scales, with significant investments without the promise of any return in the near future. One attractive option is to partner with a large chemical company, the opportunities for which were discussed in a panel during Wednesday’s session. Technology transfer and innovation representatives from Bayer, Weyerhauser, DSM, and Dow Chemical discussed what they look for in emerging technologies. A much-discussed topic was the value of “drop-in” chemicals that can be easily integrated into existing processes, as opposed to novel molecules. They also emphasized the value of managing intellectual property effectively and being upfront with expectations when dealing with new partners. One example of a successful partnership seems to be that of Metabolix with Archer Daniels Midland in the production of bioplastics, discussed by Metabolix representative Johan Van Walsem.
Pursuing scale-up without the resources of a large industrial partner requires cost-effective, sound engineering. Alif Saleh discussed Myriant Technologies progress without a large industrial partner, culminating in receiving $60 million from the DOE and Louisiana toward a commercial scale facility to produce bio-based succinic acid. To cut costs while sufficiently de-risking their technology to secure such grants, Myriant rented an existing industrial facility in Mexico to house semi-commercial scale experimentation, rather than constructing one from scratch. Collaborating with industrial organizations can help in soliciting and receiving grant money.
Robert Kirschbaum’s keynote address on Wednesday provided reason for optimism regarding the future of bio-based chemicals. He represented DSM, a large multinational chemical company with foundations in the coal and life sciences industries, which is actively pursuing innovation in biorenewable materials. DSM’s conviction that industrial customers will understand that new renewable polymers will not be drop-in chemicals, and that retail customers will pay a small premium for bio-based materials, is a great example of the kind of progressive attitude that is necessary for this industry to succeed.
Overall, attendees of the conference seemed very excited about the emerging technologies presented and satisfied with the management of the conference itself. Many speakers perhaps half-jokingly hoped there would be more conference attendees from the venture capital sector or in other positions to invest in their technologies. There also seemed to be a disconnect between the startup companies and researchers and the industry representatives, where the industry representatives did not need such in-depth summaries of technologies, and would have appreciated more attention to drop-in capacity and providing samples of their products.