What is Bioisoprene and why should you master it? A look at Genencor and GlycosBio

May 4, 2010 |
A prototype tire produced by Genencor and Goodyear from BioIsoprene

A prototype tire produced by Genencor and Goodyear from BioIsoprene

When we say bioisoprene, think synthetic rubber – but only for a start. Think “platform” for renewable diesel, jet fuel, renewable gasoline, and synthetic adhesives. It replaces fossil-based oils, can make money now, and can be made from oilseed wastes in a world gone mad in the search for cheap sugars. It’s evoking attention and investment that most fuel-developers and some Hollywood celebrities could use.

Enter another rock star of the bio-based world.

800,000 tons of isoprene were used in 2008, about 60 percent for tires, and 30 percent to adhesives and the remainder for medical or personal care products.

It takes about seven gallons of crude oil to make a gallon of fossil-based isoprene, and with price volatility on the rise and future production of the speciality chemical by the oil industry always a “now you see it, now you don’t” proposition, Goodyear partnered with Genencor back in 2008.

Their goal: an R&D partnership that would result in a low-cost, biomass-based bio-isoprene that would provide a strategic raw material for synthetic polyisoprene runner, stabilize costs, decrease dependence on fossil oils and natural rubber sourcing, and improve the environmental footprint of the tire business.

They believe that they have cracked it.

Rich LaDuca of Genecor began to hit the road with a stop at World Biofuels Markets in mid-March – his presentation is here — and a series of articles began appearing in Green Car Congress , TechNews Daily, Technology Review, and Green Blorge about the bioisoprene project.

At the same time, grumbling was heard elsewhere in Silicon Valley, along the lines of “they’ve made, what, one tire?” — in most cases, from investors in algae or other technology platforms that have made, what, one gallon. Rule #1 for parsing out trash talk in Silicon Valley: people trash investments they looked at closely, and passed on. They trash it because they can’t figure out why someone else is paying attention to it. Usually that means that “someone else” is betting on a new technology, a new piece of IP that has floated up from the lab.

Bioisoprene, while not a smack-down, no brainer to make, is not the subject of Nobelesque research efforts. Making it at suitable purity, at an affordable cost and at scale — now that’s the trick. Genencor think they have solved the puzzle by extracting bioisoprene in the gas-phase, which gives them the purity they want, combined with affordability. Over a three-year period, the reported Danisco-Genencor investment has been pegged at $50 million, with an unreported cost-share from Goodyear, with an additional investment expected for the pilot plant.

Here are the highlights:

Technology. Genencor has modified e.coli to produce an isoprene synthase enzyme, and ferments bioisoprene from a variety of biomass feedstocks. By harvesting in the gas-pahse, Genencor believes it has addressed the problem of acquiring purity at low cost.

How do they do it, specifically? E.coli naturally spits out some isoprene, just not enough and not nearly as quickly as needed – the metabolic pathways are too complex. In this case, Genencor has optimized the process by which carbohydrates are stripped of oxygens, leading to a  3,3-dimethylallyl pyrophosphate (a/k/a/ DMAPP). Thence, the enzyme isoprene synthase catalyzes the production of BioIsoprene. Because isoprene is a gas at low temperatures, it bubbles out of the fermentation chamber and is recoverable without the use of costly separation techniques.

Timeline. Genencor commenced its collaborative partnership with Goodyear in 2008. The pilot plant is expected later this year, with a BioIsoprene manufacturing plant expected by 2012 and polymerization of bioisoprene into synthetic runner and other elastomers by 2013, with commecial sales also commencing that sale year.

Pricing. High purity BioIsoprene is expected to price at $1600-$2300 per ton, with a global market estimated at up to $2 billion. That’s in the $5.80-$8.40 per gallon equivalent range, in terms of the dollar yield compared to converting biomass to renewable fuels. So, the effort yields 2.5-3.5 times the margins expected in the fuel markets, though the market is smaller and price stability as supply ramps up is always a challenge.

The Neat bonus for biofuels. Isoprene is a five-carbon molecule that can be paired. Put two together, and that’s a molecule the can replace gasoline. Three, and you have a potential replacement for diesel, or renewable jet fuel.

Other markets.
Diapers, feminine hygiene products, surgical gloves and other rubber-based products, which use block copolymers such as styrene-isoprene-styrene.

More here in a 2009 Genencor presentation.

The 2010 World Biofuels Markets presentation is here.

More on Genencor.

In a closely related development in every sense except the geography, GlycosBio announced the company’s international expansion into Malaysia, with the announcement of a deal to between GlycosBio and Malaysian Bio-XCell, a government-supported industrial ecosystem focused on the advancement of biotechnology in Malaysia, to collaborate on construction of GlycosBio’s biochemical plant and biotechnology research and development facility within the Bio-XCell industrial park in Malaysia.

GlycosBio eventually intends to build a pilot plant and a commercial scale facility at BioXCell, which is the hub of a 50-year project to transform the southern development corridor at Southern Industrial and Logistics Cluster (SiLC) in Nusajaya, Johor, is being developed on a 60:40 joint-venture basis between Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation (BiotechCorp) and UEM Land, on the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula, and just across the strait from Singapore. It’s a transformative investment in infrastructure – housing, a marina, as well as the siting pads for industrial biotech.

Singapore has focused on development of its medical biotech escort, while the Malaytsians have targeted industrial biotech. The key here: most industrial biotech firms work with molasses and low-cost sugars, while Malaysia is full of oil palms, and is optimally suited to work with companies that can use palm oil waste streams. Glycos has engineered e.coli to convert glycerine or low-grade free fatty acids into acetone, technical-grade ethanol and bioisoprene.
Ah, another isoprene venture.

Here are the key highlights:

Timeline: Construction of the plant will begin in Q3 2010 with an expected completion date in early 2012.  In addition to the partnership with Bio-XCell, GlycosBio will also be working closely with the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, the national agency set up by the Malaysian government for the development of biotechnology in Malaysia.

Financials: 45-55 percent gross margins from plant operations. The Malaysian project is fully funded, with GlycosBio’s partners proceeding on a build/lease-back basis.

Next for GlycosBio: “Brazil,” said GlycosBio CEO Rich Cilento. “90 percent of the activity is international, which makes sense when you consider that developing countries are growing at 6-7 percent while the US is growing at around 3 percent, if that. We have an elegant solution for a 100 Mgy ethanol plant in terms of optimizing the value of the materials in the dried distillers grains, but we’ll get to that.

Why Malaysia: It’s the world’s hub for rubber-based products, including 60 percent of surgincal gloves, which can be made from bioisoprene.
What this means: Glycos launched its pilot plant in Hempstead, Texas last November, with a capacity of 150,000 liters. “This makes the company,” Cilento remarked. “Absolutely, this is in the top 3  among he company’s achievements.”

Other products down the line.The resulting specialty chemicals can be used as building blocks for a wide range of applications including biodegradable and non-degradable plastics, as well as for surfactants and fuels, according to the company,” Cilento told Biomass Magazine last year.

More on GlycosBio

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