Verdezyne: It’s nylonic, baby

| February 12, 2013

nylon-magVerdezyne is getting close to changing, perhaps forever, the economics of producing nylon by unshackling it from the oil barrel.

And a lot more than nylon, it turns out.

Nylon is, we think, the only polymer that has so immersed itself in the culture that it provides the title for a hot-selling girls’ fashion magazine. And we’re pretty sure that CondéNast is unlikely to ever put Polyethylene terephthalate onto the newsstand with Emma Stone on the cover.

Partly, that’s the huge market. Partly, that’s the myriad consumer applications from stockings to toothbrush fibers. If nylon were an action figure, it would certainly be a Transformer.

Recently, nylon’s most interesting transformations have been less in what it is used to make — as much as how nylon is made. Some transformative fermentation technologies have come along to make nylon from renewables.

Bringing us to Verdezyne.

When last we checked in with Verdezyne at length, the company had a transformative cellulosic biofuels fermentation technology and a real foothold en route to bioadipic acid as well – a key component of nylon 6,6. Like the class of Big Wave technologies we profiled earlier in the Digest — the company sports a nifty yeast fermentation technology.

The options became clear after, right after Thanksgiving 2011, Verdezyne opened its first pilot plant to produce adipic acid, The new facility, located in Carlsbad, California was used to accelerate the commercialization of Verdezyne’s bio-based adipic acid, which is one of two components used to manufacture ‘green’ nylon 6,6 and thermoplastic polyurethane resins from renewable sources, such as non-food based vegetable oils.

A variety of products are currently produced worldwide from petroleum-based nylon, including engineered plastics, carpets, clothing and other assorted textiles. Production of these types of products translates to an adipic acid market of more than $6 billion globally.

Since then — as early stage companies are wont to do, they blanched at the prospect of developing two disparate technologies. In December 2012 came the fork in the road.

That month, the company announced the sale of its proprietary xylose isomerase technology, enabling the metabolism of 5-carbon sugars, to DuPont Industrial Biosciences. This technology allows the fast and complete utilization of biomass-sourced C5 sugars in production of various products of choice.

There was more still to come in December.

A week before Christmas, Verdezyne entered into a strategic relationship with Universal Fiber Systems, and its operating companies, Universal Fibers and Premiere Fibers. Verdezyne will supply its bio-based adipic acid to Universal Fiber Systems for certain exclusive fields of use.

What’s the latest?

After hiring 40-year DuPont veteran Ray Millar as Chief Business Officer, the company’s research has turned up opportunities in sebacic acid and DDDA (dodecanedioic acid) — the former an intermediate for nylon 6,10, a plastic used for toothbrush bristles and fishing line. The latter? Used for adhesives, fibers, plasticizers, resins, coatings, lubricants and as corrosion inhibitors. Also, an opportunity down the road with MMA (methyl methacyrylate).

The Verdezyne advantage over conventional petroleum-based chemicals based on current prices? With DDDA, at least 50 percent, the company believes. With bioadipic, in the 30 percent range.

Which brings us to another fork in the road.

Tolling vs plant-building

The economics are compelling enough for DDDA that the company expects to be in commercial-scale production by Q1 2014- with a target of 10 million pounds of production by year end. Although Verdezyne CEO Bill Radany is loathe to name customers, he confirmed to the Digest that customers will include “some of the usual suspects involved in the global supply chain.” He noted that “the economics are very attractive to toll manufacture — and make money.

The company’s adipic acid technology is ready to go — but because adipic has lower selling price, the company anticipates that it will skip toll manufacturing and build a plant, with a partner committing equity to build a plant. They plan on having finalized engineering by middle of 201, and can raise money and hopefully be manufacturing in 2015. Expect that they might follow a similar route to Myriant’s in financing the plant.

Feedstock?

The company is still pleased with the way that palm kernel and palm oil prices and production are lining up — especially compared to the price of, say, cane sugar. “All the vegetable oils work that we’ve tested,” says Radany, “but palm has oversupply and there’s been price erosion compared to canola or soy. It all comes down to price and geography.”

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