Seeking success in succinic, succinctly, sustainably

July 28, 2015 |

lubbenIs there anyone left on Planet Earth not making biobased succinic acid, or running for the US Republican presidential nomination?

In succinic, though, there might be several winners. Reverdia CEO Marcel Lubben helps us to understand the broad applications and markets in an exclusive interview with The Digest.

Ah, grashopper, you might have thought that “Seeking success in succinic, succinctly, sustainably” is just a tongue-twister for elocutionists, right along with “red leather, yellow leather” or “rubber baby buggy bumpers”.

Then again, you may find yourself identifying “PBS” as a television network that gave Congressman Aaron Schock the wrong ideas about decorating a legislative office on the public dime, via broadcasts of Downton Abbey.

Where’s the SucciniMania? The fainting teenagers? The environmentalists singing Hallelujah? Life is unfair.

Downton-mania, bah! The real deal is succinic acid and polybutylene succinate. The latter found in everything from boxes, bags, tableware, even mulching films. If we haven’t seen SucciniMania quite yet, well, it’s the fate of intermediates to be less known than they should. Meanwhile, let’s bring you up to speed.

What they are, and why they are

“PBS can be made from succinic acid,” Reverdia CEO Marcel Lubben tells us, “and among the thermoplastics, biodegradability is PBS’ unique selling proposition.” Reverdia is a joint venture between DSM, the Netherlands chemical and materials biobased, and Roquette Freres, the French starch giants — with a focus on succinic acid. Which has also been the focal point for BioAmber, Myriant and Succinity of late, just to name three market entrants.

“Lamination, for example,” says Lubben. “Think about that shiny material inside a paper coffee cup. That can be PBS. Compostability and degradability is very important for the market in a number of applications, and PBS has it. There’s PLA , but that is very brittle, and you can have a lot of sound when it crackles.

“So, PBS has become important for production in Japan, China and a little in the EU. It’s complimentary to other plastics, you see it in blends where PBS can be used to fine tune properties as an ingredient in co-polymers. So, companies like MCC Showa and Denko drive PBS.”

shoe-soleHoney, don’t you fret, ‘Cause you ain’t seen nothing yet, I’m a Sole man

“There are other poloyols and polyesters, for instance, intermediates for sport shoes, in the soles. The proposition there is to replace adipic acid as the main building block, so that with succinic we are providing a more renewable version with another diacid, succinic in this case. The renewable attribute? Brand owners like that, especially for the outdoors, where their customers are very conscious of lifecycle, and the carbon footprint.”

It’s true. Renewable attributes are important to many brand owners — but not all have joined the bandwagon, and where there is a renewable molecule that doesn’t have a brand owner committed (or skilled) at marketing that attribute, well, it can languish. So we asked Reverdia,  what is the role of the intermediate producer in terms of communicating renewable attributes?

“We quantify for them the lifecycle and carbon footprint,” said Lubben. “In the end, the customer controls how much of a given intermediate they use, and how renewable a product is, and it is really up to them to communicate those attributes with their customer.”

“Having said that, whether it is Nike or GM, very much from top down and throughout the organizations that are looking at renewable ingredients. Our challenge from them is to find out, where can we source it, what is available where and when. Secure and stable supply is an issue for everyone.

“So, for projects like the Plant Bottle, industry works hard on the renewable raw materials and the monomers, and we can tell them the lifecycle data. But we don’t have an illusion on marketing: they have a whole team on that, that’s their forte, and they have the connection with the consumer. What we can do sometimes is find new ways to excite the,.For example, we literally make shoe soles to show to potential customers what  the product can do. As opposed to dropping off a bag of polymer and saying “good luck”.

“In turn, customers can create the traction by creating commitments and pushing that through the chain. They now have a unique opportunity to get sustainability under control. Our role is in helping them to set up and realize that new value chain, from polymers all the way back to, for example, lignocellulosic feedstock.

Who’s working on what?

So, who’s working hard on a renewables project that we might have not heard much about yet, compared to, say, the Plant Bottle?

“IKEA announced that by 2020 all their material will be recyclable or renewable, and they create a lot of traction, and now we see big companies committing. When LEGO and IKEA making big announcements, you know the search is on with the brand owners. But we are still far way — you have 4-5 different steps before you have a shoe.”

So, Reverdia sees customers in a much more innovative business mode?

“Yes! It’s about “really renewable” and not about greenwashing. And they are looking seriously at the lifecycle analysis right through to indirect land use. Most importantly, I think everyone recognizes now that nothing will happen without real commitment all along the value chain, producers and brand owners, because they see the valley of death, and they know that someone needs to bring commitments and drive more awareness with the consumer.”

How are they tapping that consumer desire and making that work within corporate structures for investment and return?

“We want to feel good about our purchases,” Lubben said. “So, projects like USDA Biopreferred labeling are a great start. In the case of Coke, they also brought a different perspective on investment. Because one thing we known is that consumers don;t necessarily want to pay more, on an ongoing basis, for green. But how Coca-Cola saw it was as a one-time investment — to drive production to where you get the economies of scale and multiple suppliers, so you get competitive costs.

The Reverdia update

“As of September we will have been running for 1000 days at our 10 kiloton plant in Italy,” Lubben said. “We have our process debottlenecked now and it is running at designed capacity. So, now we have begun to focus more on application development, and we also announced that we would license the technology and have 10-15 license requests from users and potential sellers, including the petrochemical companies. There’s a lot of traction but we are not happy yet with the marlet traction, we continue to develop applications and get people on board, and market the advantages and performance benefits.

What best about the market traction so far seen?

“The increase in order sizes, for sure,” said Lubben. “At first, you have to validate an application. But now, we see 100s of tons ordered at once, or even 1 kiloton in a single order size.”

More capacity down the line?

“Based on the client contact, the leads, the sampling, what we see is that around 2018-19 we’ll need another 50 kilotons in capacity for ourselves, so we are doing rigorous pipeline management to understand and validate that. Licensing gives  another way to meet that. But the tech is ready. We did the Cassano plant with not all the commitments in place, and we have set ourselves a goal of getting 60% of capacity sold in for a new plant. You never sell out the whole capacity, as there’s always opportunity  left on the table that way, but we do owe it to the shareholders to de-risk.”

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