Khosla slams Big Oil, Virent launches plastic bottle alternative at Ethanol Summit

June 7, 2011 |

Khosla slams Big Oil, Virent debuts alternative to plastic bottles at the 2011 Ethanol Summit in Brazil

In Brazil, 2,000 industry executives gathered at UNICA’s biennial Ethanol Summit in Sao Paulo. Among the highlights, a charged keynote in which celebrated venture capitalist Vinod Khosla accused oil companies of having a double-standard on risk-taking in oil exploration, compared to biofuels.

Khosla slams Big Oil

“It’s not that oil companies don’t take risks,” Khosla said. “They will sink tens of millions into drilling new deep-water oil wells, some 3,000 meters below the ocean floor, with only 25 percent chance of success. That is risk taking. But when it comes to biomass, they only jump in when the technology has been well proven.”

The remarks set off a globa Twitter outburst, in which figures such as RFA’s Bonb Dineen, messaged their followers that “At Ethanol Summit, Vinod Khosla challenges oil co’s to invest in biofuels and biochemicals as boldly as they do for oil and gas. Applause!”

Oil company executives such as Total gas & power CEO Phillipe Goisseau, Shell VP for Alternative Energy Mark Gainsborough, and BP Biofuels CEO Phil New differed with Khosla’s assessment. Goisseau pointed out that Total earmarked $1.4 billion in biofuels investment, with a goal of becoming one of the top three global biofuels producers. Gainsborough pointed out that biofuels is the largest sector in the Shell global R&D budget, while New pointed to more than $10 billion invested in biofuels by oil companies.

Virent launches new path to 100% renewable clear plastic bottles

Virent announced it has successfully made Paraxylene from 100% renewable plant sugars. The “PX” molecule, when combined with existing PET technology, allows manufacturers to offer customers 100% natural, renewable, plant-based PET packaging. This announcement is the culmination of Virent’s mixed-xylenes development which started in 2010.

PET, or Polyethylene terephthalate, is the most-widely used material for transparent plastic packaging such as soft drink bottles. In March, Pepsi announced it would move to pilot production of a 100 percent renewable PET alternative by 2012, moving afterwards to commercial scale, while companies such as Heinz, Coca-Cola and Evian have moved to 10-30 percent bio-based blends in their PET packaging.

According to the biomaterials pioneer, the new Virent process “produces the missing 70% needed to create 100% renewable PET packaging,”

Virent’s Paraxylene, which has been trademarked BioFormPX, can be used in bottling, packaging and in a wide variety of fibers and materials. The chemical is made through a patented, catalytic process which converts plant-based sugars into PX molecules identical to those made from petroleum. “Our plant-based PX paves the way for 100% sustainable, recyclable products and packaging with complete freedom from crude oil,” said Virent CEO, Lee Edwards. “”Our PX can be blended at any ratio the customer desires, and made from a wide variety of feedstocks, including sugar cane, corn, and woody biomass. Our catalytic process is tunable to customer specs, and situated to meet the entire spectrum of fossil fuel replacement.”

The company is working with potential partners and customers to explore large-scale commercial options to augment its existing 10,000 gallon per-year demonstration plant in Madison, Wisconsin.

UNICA launches Sugarcane.org

UNICA has launched Sugarcane.org during the Ethanol Summit. Sugarcane.org is intended to explain how sugarcane can contribute to solve or reduce the impact of many of the pressing challenges the world is facing. It includes just about anything anyone would ever want to know about sugarcane production, products from sugarcane, trade, technology and sustainability issues, as well as the ‘Brazilian Experience.’

The Digest’s Take

The Ethanol Summit is off to a roaring start, with a combination of controversial remarks, product innovation, and new platforms launched to tell the renewables story. We suspect that Virent’s innovation will do more to spur investment by oil majors in renewables than Khosla’s finger-wagging. As Dr. Samuel Johnson observed, “nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

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