Looking back at ABLC 2013

April 18, 2013 |

As ABLC 2013 closes, we look back at 10 slides that caught our eye.

ABLC 2013 has closed, and the delegates are now departing until May 18-20, 2014 when the latest in advanced biofuels goes again on display and under the microscope at ABLC 2014.

After three intense days of activity, with two cabinet secretaries, three members of Congress, all the advanced biofuels trade association chiefs, all the federal agencies, the key customer groups and suppliers, more than 140 C-level executives on the floor and more than 50 CEO presentations, it will take quite a while to digest everything that a major conference like ABLC reveals about the state of the industry.

Over the next days and weeks, we’ll be sifting through the slides, the notes from panel discussions and the conversations on the sidelines as more than 500 industry executives gathered to look at the trends, reflect, establish new ties and renew others, and set course for another year in the scale-up of advanced biofuels.


There was much progress to celebrate, and sobering headwinds to consider. More than $900 million in equity investment into the sector in the past year and more than $300 million in deal flow announced this week alone at ABLC. There were significant construction completions, as Gevo, Amyris, Beta Renewables, INEOS Bio and KiOR and others completed the construction phase and moved into the plant commissioning phase.


Scale-up to commercial-scale for many companies, moving from construction to full-time operation for others, moving out of the lab into pilot or demonstrations for the next wave of companies — and policy and finance challenges for all.

Perhaps nothing was more on the minds of delegates as the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard, and the impact of the Washington policy debate on investor confidence — and the impact of low-cost natural gas both as a catalyst for platforms like butadiene and a slowing factor in capital formation as natgas projects soaked up the capital.

Emerging theme?

You’ll hear about it a lot more in upcoming months — safety. A blast that yesterday ripped through West, Texas yesterday, killing 15 and injuring 100 and sending seismic shocks all the way to Dallas, reminds us of the low temperature and low pressure at which bioenergy plants operate compared to their fossil-based relatives.


More than 1000 slides, in all, were presented over the three days — and no first selection of 10 can justly reflect all the activity — but it can reflect some of the themes and trends as we heard them at ABLC.


At ABLC, the talk is always about creating high-value products from low-cost materials, but Bunge crystallized the appeal of converting lower-cost sugars into higher-value oils with “connecting the sugar and oil value chains”.



Many companies have built diverse partnerships and thereby leveraged themselves into a capital-light path towards scale — but LanzaTech’s landscape of partners was striking in its diversity and scope. No doubt this was a trend at ABLC — the days of vertical integration are long over, timelines and costs are being compressed into investor-friendly rates of return through partnerships both in the supply chain and in the customer realm.


US Navy

Speaking of customers — no customers have a more active roadmap for fostering the development of biofuels than the aviation sector — and no one in aviation has built a plan like the US Navy’s in scope or sophistication. In this slide, we are reminded of the Navy’s ramp-up of demand — and we are expecting, quite soon, for the next step in their strategy to unfold with details on the DPA Act work in commercializing biofuels.



Within a well-received keynote, Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling too a moment to note the industry’s (and Genomatica’s) progress towards scale, in reaching the 500,000+ liter fermentation scale, via a 5-week productino campaign that yielded 5 million pounds of BDO. It’s all been sold to key customers, said Schilling, who noted that the company expects to identify a new major customer partner in upcoming weeks.


Cool Planet

A number of companies looked at the “distributed vs aggregated” question in their presentations. In the case of Cool Planet, CEO Howard Janzen laid out the problem with elegance. At 100 miles, he contended, you can aggregate a lot of biomass, but the cost of transportation (and the associated carbon footprint) becomes a choke-point in scale-up. Better, he said, to focus on developing systems that overcame the economic challenges of small-scale than nearly doubling the cost of feedstock in order to feed a facility built for larger scale.


Beta Renewables

In a highly entertaining presentation, Beta Renewables CEO Guido Ghisolfi went throgh the Beta Renewables — and the industry story — but a picture can be worth a thousand words, and this slide of the Crescentino, Italy commercial-scale facility proves the rule. There’s nothing like the sight of a relatively massive industrial facility to persuade the non-believers that celluloisic biofuels are, at last, a commercial reality.


Stern Brothers

Though commercial-scale is now arriving in advanced biofuels, financing first-of-kind technologies remains a huge challenge. In this slide from Stern Brothers’ bond guru John May, we are reminded of the limits of bank financing. That banks cannot project finance renewables will come as a shock to the Department of Energy that counted so heavily on their support — as a delegate at ABLC put it, “it’s a balance sheet, or bonds, probably both — and that’s about it.”

Beta RenewablesSternBrothers

Kapyon Ventures

Han Chen at Kapyon and ZeaKal focused much of his attention in a riveting performance on the challenges that the time-scales of industrial biotechnology pose for the venture finance model, he pivoted to an innovative set of break-throughs in what he called thew “prestream”, with “drop-in technology” in plant genetics that has increased biomass growth rates by as much as 50% in recent trials.


Fulcrum Bioenergy

In feedstocks, Jim Macias managed to capture the essence of MSW’s appeal in a single slide that summed up the reasons why Fulcrum had developed technology to convert MSW to liquid energy. It’s perhaps the ultimate SARA feedstock — sustainable, affordable, reliable, available — that has been yet identified.


Sapphire Energy

Though Sapphire Energy CEO C.J. Warner focused her attention on the “how” of turning algae dreams into industrial reality — her aerial overview of Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm made the striking visual case that technology is unlocking new opportunities in the land — and doing so at substantial scale, with a full quarter-section (160 acres) of ponds already constructed at the complex — including, at bottom, the largest ponds ever contemplated for industrial algae production, at 5 acres each.


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