Green Biologics begins shipments from 1st commercial plant 

December 13, 2016 |

bd-ts-121416-green-biologics-cover-final-smIt seems that the two people around the globe that are doing exactly what they said they would are Donald Trump and Green Biologics CEO Sean Sutcliffe.

President-elect Trump is appointing a team on energy, EPA and at the Department of State right out of the membership rolls of the “Universal Brotherhood of Climate Deniers’ Lodge #1” — just as he said he would. And plenty of people are in a state of shock.

Meanwhile, Green Biologics reports that it has commenced commercial shipments of bio-based n-butanol and acetone from its 21 million gallon manufacturing facility in Little Falls, Minnesota – by the end of 2016, just as they said they would. And plenty of people are in a state of shock.

In the latter case, good shock. Not every company passes through this stage-gate on time.

What this is and what it isn’t

In the “Whoa, nelly” department, let’s wave the flags of enthusiasm but not yet the “Mission Accomplished” ones. Production is expected to ramp up to full capacity over the next twelve to eighteen months.

This milestone is about getting the customer sales cycle started in a big way. Virtually all the 1-2 liter samples that need to get out to customers to test on the bench are shipping not, or are imminent. Then, there are the customers who will need as much as 100 tons of product to trial run in their own processes. That will take more time — but Green Biologics expects to have those complete certainly in the first half and possibly by the end of the first quarter.

Here's the Green Biologics schedule - all those years, and right on time.

Here’s the Green Biologics schedule – all those years, and right on time.

How’s the quality and the economics?

We’ve seen customer shipments before — and these first batches are rarely if ever going to be produced at the costs-per-gallon that the plant will achieve when it reaches its yield, rate, and uptime goals. But are the plant’s production runs tracking along the expected metrics path?

“Yes,” Sean Sutcliffe told The Digest. “But we all need to be cautious about extrapolating yields and performance. But clearly we see the fermentation and the productivity we’d like to.”


The Green Biologics CME plant in Minnesota

Now, we transition from the R&D story to more of the sales story

Over the past year, Green Biologics has built a robust pipeline of domestic and export customers combined with multiple partnerships to bring its products to downstream markets. These include distribution agreements with Acme Hardesty, Nexeo Solutions, and Caldic as well as a strategic partnership with HOC Industries, a custom blender, packager and distributor of consumer and government products. The company is collaborating with other industry leaders in a range of specialty markets and applications where performance and sustainability drive value.

So now, the story at Green Biologics is going to transition to one about three different markets.

1. The substitution market. These are the players already working at scale that can take a n-butanol product off-the-shelf, as it were, and drop it into their current process. In this case, they’re acquiring a premium molecule where the premium is renewability, rather than any change in performance. These markets can take large volumes, and generally buy off the specification with some limited trialing and testing to ensure the product works.

2. The speciality chemicals market. Here, there are also companies that do not have a product waiting for a drop-in substitution, but they see the opportunity to formulate a product that utilizes renewable n-butanol. These markets will eventually in many cases generate large volumes, but in the nearer-term will require a different type of sampling, and then may go through an internal business case review, product certifications and approvals, and their own product launch and customer ramp-up. So, think longer term — and think of its partnership with Acme-Hardesty in this regard.

As we repored in April, In Virginia, Green Biologics has partnered with Acme-Hardesty, a division of Jacob Stern & Sons, for the distribution of n-butanol and acetone to the U.S. market for high value applications in food ingredients, cleaning products, and biolubricants. More on that here.

That partnership came on the heels of the Green Biologics partnership with Nexeo, which  will be focusing on the CASE (coatings, adhesives, sealants, and elastomers) HI&I (household, industrial & institutional cleaners), PCI (personal care intermediates), and energy chemicals industries.

3. Then, there’s a middle-case. Green Biologics may, in partnership or solo, take products it develops all the way to the end-use customer. Could be a retail product, or a bulk one – where the company develops a brand, sales channels, and a defensible margin. It’s a middle case because it shares some of the product development timeline and aggravatino characteristics of the speciality chemicals pathway — but is more accelerated because of the business structure and more in this case like the substitution market in terms of timing.

In this case, note our story from October. We reported that Green Biologics unveiled its branding and product development strategy for its high purity bio-based n-butanol and acetone, as well as associated downstream products.  The company aims to market all 100 percent bio-based chemicals under the brand “BioPure,” a descriptive brand name that encapsulates both the purity and sustainability of its bio-based chemistry. Green Biologics has also registered the trademark “GreenInside” for co-branding opportunities with its collaboration partners, who will use the mark on a wide range of consumer and industrial products making sustainability claims based on Green Biologics’ technology. More on that here. 

The Green Biologics backstory

The Little Falls, Minnesota plant was purchased in December 2014 through the acquisition of assets from the Central MN Ethanol Cooperative. Green Biologics re-named the site Central MN Renewables and commenced construction on its renewable chemicals facility in September 2015. The 21 million gallon-per-year ethanol plant was retrofitted with Green Biologics’ proprietary advanced fermentation technology to produce bio-based n-butanol and acetone.

The company began the conversion in January — and we reported on that development here.

The financing

Last January, the company announced the closing of an internal follow-on equity round of $42 million co-led by Swire Pacific Limited and Sofinnova Partners. Existing investors Capricorn Venture Partners, Oxford Capital Partners, Morningside Technology Partners and ConvergInce Holdings also participated in the round.

The technology

Leveraging a leadership position in Clostridia microbiology, biochemistry and fermentation, GBL develops microbes and processes that utilize sustainable and diverse feedstocks to produce a portfolio of valuable chemicals and future biofuels. While maximizing performance GBL focuses on minimizing environmental impact.

Clostridia are well suited to commercial use for the production of industrial chemicals. Proven commercially for a century, they are robust, solvent tolerant and can utilize a variety of feedstocks and sugars including C5 and C6 monomers, dimers and some polymers. Most importantly more of the energy provided (in the form of sugars) is recovered in the form of usable products (solvents and energy) than is the case for most commercially utilized organisms, such as yeast.

It’s been demonstrated, thankfully, via a modification of Easy Energy Systems’s ethanol demonstration plant in Emmetsburg, IA, where the partners produced renewable n-butanol and acetone as far back as 2012 at a 40,000 liter fermentation scale. The scale up here will include larger fermentation units and more of them. And, the company produced 50 tons of product out of China in a demonstration-and-marketing-push, which was sold and sampled.

For those less familiar…

For those less familiar with the 4-carbon butanol (as opposed to 2-carbon ethanol), it’s been widely tipped for years to ultimately be the molecule of choice for the US Corn Belt. It’s been a much tough technology puzzle — but the business case for producing fuels and chemicals using a four-carbon platform is solid. On the chemicals side, there are a range of $5 per gallon applications, or even higher prices.

Now, to complicate matters just a little, there’s isobutanol and n-butanol — the former is better for fuels, the latter is better for chemicals. Gevo and Butamax have been working on isobutanol, and have made substantial progress towards scale — especially Gevo, which is now operating at its first commercial facility in Luverne, Minnesota.

The problems have been two-fold. First, a fermentation process with sufficient yield. Two, a process that can utilize cellulosic material to get the costs down. And with that, along comes Green Biologics and its process.

And, a whole bunch of buzz in the C4 platforms, as companies switch from naphtha to low-cost natgas, and there have been some resultant price spikes in the C4 feedstocks. Last time we asked Green Biologics about the attractions of today’s market, they weren’t swayed by the exuberance. “Commodity cycles swing. Our job is improve the technology, and develop economic returns we can deliver throughout the cycle. We appreciate the trend but we’re not relying on it.”

Reaction from the stakeholders

“The start of our first commercial facility is a critical milestone in building our position within the industry as a global renewable speciality chemicals company,” said Sean Sutcliffe, Chief Executive of Green Biologics. “We’re very proud to announce the start of shipments to key customers in high-value markets and look forward to working with existing and new collaborators to bring a wide range of sustainable, environmentally-friendly products to shelves.”

“There’s a clear and urgent demand within consumer and industrial markets for more sustainable products that can deliver improved performance over traditional petro-based commodities,” said David Anderson, Green Biologics’ Global VP of Marketing. “We’re meeting this need by creating high-value, performance-driven speciality chemicals and formulated products, all sourced from the chemicals produced at our commercial facility, and continuing to work in collaboration with industry leaders who share our vision.”

What’s Next?

Ramp-up over the afore-mentioned 12-18 months, with a focus on selling out production. Not dissimilar from the Amyris and BioAmber playbook.

Plant number two? “That’s for another time, we’ll be focusing on number one,” Sutcliffe told The Digest. “but when that time comes I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs in Europe, and with biomass as a feedstock.”

More on the story.


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