Scale-Up: What Makes the Winners Win?

September 4, 2016 |

BD TS 090516 scale-up smNews has arrived from Quebec and we are glad to report it that BioAmber, in its Sarnia succinic acid joint venture with Mitsui & Co., has achieved the final operational milestone set out in a $20 million commercial loan that the joint venture drew down in 2015.

It’s worth some detail, before the cheering: BioAmber Sarnia demonstrated performance levels validating commercial operation, as defined in its loan agreement with Comerica Bank, Export Development Canada and Farm Credit Canada. It’s such a happy outcome that you want to put everyone in a room and start The Wave.

Gets better. We hear that performance indicators for the Sarnia manufacturing facility included the overall efficiency of BioAmber’s proprietary biotechnology in fermentation, the plant’s throughput and output in continuous operation, and the quality of the final product.

More Money for BioAmber

BioAmber Sarnia has also demonstrated the performance targets that Sustainable Development Technology Canada had originally set for the project. These include targets related to greenhouse gas emissions and financial performance. SDTC has completed its third-party validation of Sarnia’s performance and approved the final grant payment of CAD$1.45 million to BioAmber.

The larger question

Well, why is this news? Why is this a rarity at all? As Hef used to say, “It isn’t the sex that’s the problem. It’s the frequency.”

It’s a great thing when a company like BioAmber hits its targets. But where are the others? What went right here, wrong elsewhere?

The Slow Go-ers

Let’s look at the most prominent “slow commissioning” technologies to see the commonalities, if any.

GranBio, POET-DSM, Beta Renewables: all had front-end difficulties associated with the biomass-to-sugar phase; troubles in maintaining long fermentation runs; all use agricultural residues; all are fermentation-based.

INEOS Bio: had excessive off-gases being produced, requiring new scrubber equipment; used gasification and fermentation technology.

KiOR: excessive catalyst costs, low bio-oil yields: used pyrolysis technology.

Amyris, Gevo: low yields, associated with infections and side reactions; used sugar-based fermentation. Gevo used old ethanol fermentation equipment.

TerraVia: utilities connectivity problems in generating power for its system; used sugar-based fermentation.

Common problems? One thing we see is the problem of scale itself. Problems that didn’t show up at demonstration phase because of the increased size of systems, larger fermenters, larger biomass volumes. Problems that wouldn’t have been a blip on the operations screens at 1/100th scale.

The Bottom Line

So, in BioAmber’s case, there’s the benefit of smaller scale associated with renewable chemicals.

On the other hand, Genomatica scaled to 500,000 liter fermenters in a six-week continuous fermentation campaign, successfully. Others like Elevance have gone to scale without problems. In the case of Genomatica, they partnered with Tate & Lyle, as we reported here. TerraVia successfully partnered with ADM in Iowa for a healthy production flow as well.

Our bet?

It’s not in the fermentation culture. It’s in the operating culture.

Not every technology developer is born to be an owner/operator. We see private equity firms acquiring production capacity and its a good business for them, suggesting that there’s a substantial advantage in operational experience itself.

Suggesting that as the bioeconomy aims to build dozens, hundreds or even thousands of its biorefineries, that building an operating culture and a cadre of experienced operators is going to be critical in delivering returns on investment that come from smooth transition from construction phase to operation.

As Des’Ree put it, “you gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser.” Her sunny anthem “You Gotta Be” is a must-listen for the advanced bioeconomy.


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