Unlocking the universe of biobased (and not so biobased) materials

November 19, 2013 |

new-biomaterialsIn the Marvel Cinematic Universe, exotic materials are brought from outer space, but in the Digest Cinematic Universe, the most transformative materials are all around you.

Possibly in your trash. 

If there is a lesson we can draw from the fracking and the biobased revolutions, it is that the most important work we can do is seek technologies that unlock the universe of materials — shifting from scarce or high-cost sources to everyday residues and low-cost materials around us.

It was just such a technological revolution that once targeted low-cost, abundant petroleum — as a replacement for scarce whale oil. Now, oil demand is overwhelming supply — as expressed in massively increased prices compared to days gone by. Not to mention, the problem of who controls what among the fossil materials.

Today, gasification and catalytic or fermentation systems are empowering companies such as Enerkem and Fulcrum Bioenergy to pursue municipal waste as a feedstock for fuels and chemicals. The fracking technologies — despite their critics — have pioneered the exploration of tight oil and gas.

In a similar vein, three announcements came across the Digest desk this week that extend the story in other directions.

One is from Germany, where new technology is enabling the production of lactic acid from waste biomass — where the presence of oxygen is an advantage rather than (as in the production of hydrocarbon fuels) a molecule to be blown off.

At the same time, a technology initially developed by Chemtex for application in the fuel markets, the PROESA technology, is now being applied in a waste biomass-to-glycols technology that Novozymes and M&G will pursue for biobased PET in China – a component in plastic bottling. For years, there has been the technology to make PET from corn sugars, but corn is high-priced and scarce in China, whereas corn stover is hardly tapped as a feedstock.

Finally, we heard tale of an effort at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to develop the mathematical modeling systems possible that would enable faster, better development of what are known as low-cost, bimetal catalysts.

Unlocking bimetal catalysts

In Massachusetts, applied mathematicians Markos Katsoulakis and Luc Rey-Bellet of the University of Massachusetts Amherst will share a three-year, $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, with others, to develop new methods to improve mathematical modeling of multi-scale, complex systems.

One of the primary practical applications planned by Katsoulakis and Rey-Bellet, with partners at Brown University and the University of Delaware, is to design highly efficient and cost-effective bimetallic catalysts using relatively inexpensive metals.

Katsoulakis says, “The role of uncertainty and sensitivity quantification in this process turns out to be crucial, because the design of bimetallic catalysts rests on understanding how sensitive the catalyst’s performance metrics are on its parent metals.”

Over the next three years, the multi-institution team will develop new mathematical tools that describe uncertainty and model sensitivity using information theory, probability theory, statistical methods such as model selection and model reduction, rare events methods, multi-scale analysis and parameterization of coarse-grained models from finer scales and data.

Katsoulakis and Rey-Bellet believe that their research has great potential for wider impact in a number of fields because it will lay down the mathematical foundations for uncertainty quantification and sensitivity analysis in a broad class of complex systems typically encountered in physicochemical and biological processes, atmosphere and ocean science, and other types of complex networks.

Unlocking waste biomass, for lactic acid

Now, you may be highly familiar with technologies such as NatureWorks, which is using corn sugars to produce polylactic acids, as an intermediate en route to biopolymers. Good news, it’s renewable. The not-so-good news — corn sugars are traded as a global commodity and can experience shocking price swings from season to season. One of the reasons that NatureWorks is pursing natural gas as a feedstock in partnership with Calysta Energy.

In Germany, Direvo announced the successful completion of laboratory scale development of a fermentation process for low cost production of L-lactic acid, a part of its BluCon technology platform. The technology platform enables one-step conversion of nonfood biomass to valuable chemicals, for example lactic acid.

The BluCon technology offers consolidated bioprocesses for production of biofuels and biobased chemicals. Consolidated bioprocessing is the conversion of lignocellulose into target products in a single step by microorganisms without additional enzymes. BluCon accepts various non-food biomass ranging from grasses and straw to agricultural and wood residues and can therefore be applied to a wide variety of feedstocks around the globe.

Direvo´s CEO Jorg Riesmeier stated, “Our proprietary bacteria ferment grass, straw and other agricultural and forestry wastes. We have improved yield and conversion rate dramatically over the last 18 months. Again, Direvo has proven the ability to rapidly develop novel biotech processes.”

Unlocking corn stover and agricultural waste for plastic bottling

We’ve been following for some time the landmark efforts of Coca-Cola, Gevo, Avantium and Virebt to make renewable paraxylene, or PX, one of the components of clear plastic bottling. Making the other key component, PET, or polyethylene terephthalate – well, we’ve known how to make that for some time on a renewable basis, from corn sugars or cane sugars.

Good news, it’s renewable. The not-so-good news — corn sugars are traded as a global commodity and can experience shocking price swings from season to season. We just said that, didn’t we? Clearly, a problem that clearly crosses multiple product platforms.

So, this week along come M&G Chemicals and Novozymes. Novozymes just announced that it will supply enzyme technology to the world’s first biomass to glycols bio-refinery to be constructed by M&G Chemicals in China. The bio-refinery will be located in Anhui province, close to Fuyang in Eastern China, and will have capacity to process 1 million metric tons of biomass per year, approximately 4 times the capacity of the biomass conversion facility by Beta Renewables in Crescentino, Italy.

Construction of the bio-refinery is contingent upon successful financing, and the bio-refinery is slated to begin operations in 2015.

The bio-refinery is expected to be realized through a joint venture between M&G Chemicals and the Chinese company Guozhen Group Co. which will make available 1 million metric tons of wheat straw and corn stover per year.

The bio-refinery will produce mono-ethylene glycol (MEG). MEG’s main application areas are in the production of synthetic polyester fibers and as one of two main components in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) production. PET is one of the key building blocks for plastic packaging, including plastic bottles for water. The lignin by-product will feed a 45 MW cogeneration power plant which will be constructed in conjunction with the bio-refinery.

The bio-refinery will use Beta Renewables’ PROESA technology, and Novozymes will supply the enzyme technology for biomass conversion on an exclusive basis over a 15-year period. Novozymes’ revenue from this bio-refinery, which corresponds to four regular Beta Renewables facilities, is included in the expectations provided by Novozymes at the signing of the strategic partnership agreement with Beta Renewables in October, 2012. At the signing in October, 2012, Novozymes expected Beta Renewables to be able to contract 15-25 biomass conversion facilities in the five-year period up to 2017 and that the sales potential for Novozymes from the 15-25 facilities, once operational, could be up to DKK 1 billion annually.

To support M&G Chemicals’ vision, Novozymes will provide M&G Chemicals with financial support of USD 35 million, the exact details of which remain to be determined. Novozymes does not currently expect to expand its enzyme production capacity to serve the new bio-refinery.

“M&G Chemicals is today taking a big step towards a bio-based society where biomass is used for products like fuel, chemicals and plastics. We are incredibly excited to enable M&G Chemicals’ vision of producing bio-plastics on a commercial scale and are looking forward to the long-term collaboration”, says Thomas Videbæk, Executive Vice President and Head of Business Development in Novozymes.

Unlocking biobased PEF: Avantium demonstrates 100% biobased t-shirts from recycled bottles

In Holland, Avantium announced another breakthrough with its PEF (or polyethylene furanoate). It has demonstrated that PEF can also be used to make fibers, and even that PEF bottles can be recycled into PEF fibers. These PEF fibers from recycled PEF bottles have been processed into 100% biobased T-shirts. The PEF fiber spinning, fabric weaving and dyeing was performed by the Institute of Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University, using conventional polyester processing technology and equipment. The fiber market is an important recycling outlet for today’s PET packaging, and the results presented today show similar end-of-life solutions that can be applied for PEF.

Unlocking the PlatBottle technology’s potential: Coca-Cola and Ford unveil Ford Fusion Energi

In Michigan, Ford and the Coca Cola Co. are collaborating on a first-ever interior fabric made from the same renewable material used to produce Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle Technology packaging. The two companies today unveiled a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid vehicle with Coca-Cola PlantBottle Technology interior fabric surfaces covering seat cushions, seat backs, head restraints, door panel inserts and headliners. The research vehicle marks the first time PlantBottle Technology is applied beyond packaging. The Ford Fusion Energi research vehicle will be on display later this month at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The bottom line

In order to shift down the cost curve — and shift off the volatility rollercoaster — well, it’s essential to shift to new materials that offer cost opportunities and stable pricing. Shifting down the feedstock curve, as it were — just as companies occasionally shift up and down the product pricing curve as they expand from low-volume, high-margin chemicals to low-margin, high-volume fuels.

Here are three living examples that the pace of innovation is not slowing in industrial biotech. In fact, it appears to be speeding up. Faster is getting faster, disruptive change is accelerating. Spreading, converging, diffusing.

In fact, one of the problems that we may experience in this century is not the lack of innovative technologies, but a lack of time window from one technology to another that allows investors to recoup their investments. Nice problem to have, of course.

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