Make Haste Slowly: The story of Anellotech’s journey towards a bio-BTX breakthrough

January 4, 2018 |

Cosimo de Medici’s mark, the tortoise equipped with a (bio-based) sail.

The inventor of the paperback book, italic type and scientific publishing, Aldus Manutius, had for his motto the old Latin saying Festina lente (make haste slowly), and the printer’s mark of the Renaissance’s most famous printing operation, the Aldine Press, was a dolphin and anchor which illustrated the theme.

Manutius got it from Cardinal Bembo (father of the madrigal) who thought it dated back to the Roman Emperor Vespasian, but Vespasian got it off Augustus — who knew a thing or two about organizing scale-up, having re-engineered the Roman Empire such that it survived his death by 460 years.

Mark of the Aldine Press, the founder of scientific publishing — the dolphin and the anchor.

Augustus had a bunch of sayings he liked on the theme: “Better a safe commander than a bold“; and “That which has been done well has been done quickly enough” and coins of his era featured a crab and a butterfly, a rabbit in a snail shell, and the dolphin and the anchor. He was a master of the slow burn.

Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany

Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, rendered the idea as a tortoise equipped with a sail, and the idea of “making haste slowly” shows up repeatedly in Shakespeare. So, we can still see, in stage productions and films of Love’s Labour’s Lost and so forth, how important this idea was to the inventors, innovators, and soldiers who organized the Renaissance and the Classical World.

Or, if you prefer, try “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get”, which was Lewis Carroll’s way of putting it.

In it, we are reminded that innovation is a never-ending war between two brothers named Urgency and Diligence — and the conflict comes roaring back to life when we consider the news that occasionally seeps out of that mysterious Middle Earth country, best known in the bioeconomy as Anellotech.  The world is a fan of Urgency, but the company and its strategic backers are followers of Diligence, and it’s been an Augustine slow burn in Pearl River, New York — but one which is getting, as Rome once did, pretty interesting as a long-term value proposition.

Augustus had the crab and butterfly as the obverse on this beautiful gold coin that dates back to the founding days of the Roman Empire.

This week from Anellotech, which sends out messages about its progress about as frequently as Roman Catholic cardinals send out white smoke from a Sistine Chapel conclave, we have the news of the completion of the commissioning of its 25 meter tall TCat-8 pilot plant, and the commencement of the critical development and testing program. An integrated team of Anellotech and IFPEN research engineers and technicians will optimize process variables and generate data for process development and scale-up. Commercial Bio-TCat plant design and process licensing will be carried-out by Axens.

Stealthy like a cat, that TCat development is for sure, but not always as fast.  In the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, you can definitely forget about casting Anellotech’s R&D team in the role of the Rabbit. Rather, I suspect they are trained in deer-stalking prior to commencing employment. But then again, Cosimo de Medici took 18 years to wear down Siena, including a 15-month siege, so let’s keep the timelines in perspective.

The BTX backstory

This is a remarkable technology all right — a catalytic pyrolysis process in which you shove loblolly pine in at one end, and at the other end appears the useful and fundamental BTX molecules which, among other things, provide a necessary component for renewable clear plastic bottles made from PET.

Anellotech’s pilot unit

“A lot of brand owners have sustainability goals,” Anellotech CEO David Sudolsky told The Digest, “but there just haven’t been options for engineered benzene derived polymers. For those customers, we have something which is not just talk, but a 25 meter tall unit that you can see, with loblolly pine going in, and BTX molecules coming out.”

It’s true. You can’t make yoga pants from solar panels, as LanzaTech’s Jennifer Holmgren is fond of saying. There’s more to sustainable living than renewable electrons, all right — especially if you see any uses for rubber, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, explosives, and pesticides in your future.

So, In addition to prototype paraxylene sample production for PET applications testing, the TCat-8 unit output will be used to make prototype test samples of benzene and toluene for conversion to polymer derivatives such as bio-based ABS, polycarbonate, polyurethane, and high performance engineered polymers for use by current and/or future strategic investor product development, corporate marketing, and sustainability programs.

The investors surrounding Anellotech are all strategics — companies that are vitally interested in the products that the process will produce, or the opportunities to make and sell catalysts or process technology once Anellotech has reached commercial-scale. They’ve been notable primarily for a level of anonymity that the principals of the Manhattan Project would have admired.

The technical advance

These Anellotech advances are generally technical in nature at this time. Essentially, the company has validated that the process works, and you really do shove in pine at one end and get chemicals at the other. And the unit runs — now doing so for multi-day runs. The work on yield, catalyst stability and validating of the process economics, and developing the data for scale-up design — those projects can now begin.

Next steps

Anellotech and its development partners IFPEN and Johnson Matthey will also develop next generation catalysts, evaluate loblolly pine and other sustainable bio-feedstocks, and confirm Bio-TCat’s process economics at commercial scale.

The TCat-8 unit is designed to demonstrate the Bio-TCat (thermal catalytic biomass conversion) process in a fluid bed reactor with internal process recycle streams and continuous catalyst regeneration. The pilot plant was jointly designed by Anellotech and IFPEN and is located in Silsbee, Texas on the plant site of South Hampton Resources (SHR). The process will use a novel catalyst under joint development by Anellotech and Johnson Matthey.

The Anellotech backstory

Anellotech Confidential: Pilot running, new mystery investor as catpyro begins to scale

Toyota: Let’s Go Places with Anellotech, Bio-places that is

Thermal catalytic biomass conversion: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to Anellotech

Anellotech has another Mystery Date.

Anellotech picks up $3M in equity from mysterious “multinational strategic

Why it matters

Anellotech’s Bio-TCat process is designed to produce cost-competitive renewable aromatic (BTX) chemicals (benzene, toluene and xylenes) from non-food biomass for use in making plastics such as polyester, nylon, polycarbonate, polystyrene, or for renewable transportation fuels.

The key differentiators

There are two.

First, the MinFree biomass pretreatment.

The MinFree technology reduces mineral (ash) content of biomass feedstocks, thereby enabling economic catalyst lifetimes. “This is a breakthrough innovation for the industry and vital to technological success” said Anellotech CTO Chuck Sorensen. “It opens up the possibility to use many types of low-cost biomass feedstocks that contain high levels of well-known catalyst poisons. MinFree technology represents a major step forward, enabling the cost competitiveness of Anellotech’s biomass conversion process.”

It’s free of a lot of things besides Min namely, free of association with the various pretreatment schemes that have elsewhere sunk or damaged a number of early-stage cellulosic ventures while at the same time, allowing the venture to stay away from costly (if renewable) sources of conventional sugars.

Second, the one-reactor catalytic process. The Bio-TCat reactor outlet hydrocarbon product requires only mild hydrotreating to remove trace impurities using existing oil refining technology. As opposed to multi-step pyrolysis processes that make a highly-oxygenated bio-oil intermediate product which requires costly high pressure hydrogenation and additional refinery upgrading.

The Bottom Line

It’s the beginning of the middle, not the completion of the journey for Anellotech. They’re making haste slowly, keeping in mind that “People forget how fast you did a job – but they remember how well you did it”, as Howard W. Newton put it.

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