No such thing as a drop-in – how Circa developed a novel bio-based solvent

February 26, 2020 |

By Tony Duncan, CEO and co-founder of Circa Group

Special to The Digest

Bringing a new product with a unique manufacturing process to market comes with its challenges – it’s not the classic business strategy proposed by most MBA courses! However, as a company founder who had belief in the process, we know it can be a journey worth taking.

The technology

Alongside our partners, we’ve developed a new bio-based solvent made from waste cellulose. Cyrene is a polar aprotic solvent which can replace solvents like NMP, DCM and DMC. It’s a chiral, renewable, non-toxic alternative – and in some processes, it outperforms traditional solvents. Cyrene has a unique property set, including viscosity, surface tension and polarities, which makes it an attractive solvent for producing a wide range of products, including advanced materials.

Our proprietary Furacell technology is the world’s first continuous process to produce levoglucosenone, a versatile platform chemical. Efficient and flexible, the process is highly selective for levoglucosenone, producing minimal by-products. Cyrene can be produced in one step from levoglucosenone. By using lignocellulosic waste as a feedstock, our process has a much lower carbon footprint compared to traditional solvents.

Challenges and Opportunities

Our strategy has been guided by the fact that environmental, health and safety concerns have increased interest in and demand for greener solvents. Despite REACH and other chemical legislations, few bio-based solvent solutions have been established. Replacing solvents is resource-consuming as there is no such thing as a drop-in replacement. To make life even more difficult, many uses of solvents are based on tradition rather than a fundamental understanding of process requirements.

Developing new solvents involves process trialling, optimisation and product regulatory approvals and Cyrene is one of the few, new bio-based solvents on the market to have achieved REACH Annex VIII. Regulatory authorities are increasingly taking action to reduce the impact of chemicals on people and the environment. Obviously, there will be push back from those with legacy operations – but as a trend, it is like gravity – it may not seem particularly strong, but it is inexorable.

Market demand for higher functionality is, of course, part of the nature of business. The ongoing competition in the market – which leads to improved performance from better and cheaper products. We see it in lightweighting, improved energy consumption, increased computing power new screens and improved medications – all, arguably, based on chemical breakthroughs.

Getting to scale and commercialization

Our core products – Cyrene and platform chemical levoglucosenone – have been around for many years in small-scale quantities. The missing key has been finding processes to be able to manufacture products at scale and at a reasonable cost.

This led Circa to form the ReSolute consortium which recently was successful in an EU Horizon 2020 Flagship application. We plan to build a 1,000 tonne/year plant in France with partners including Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, Norske Skog, Will&Co, University of York (GCE), AgroParisTech and CPL.

The project is kicking off soon and will provide new manufacturing and employment opportunities in product manufacture and downstream conversion in Europe.

With our core product Cyrene performing well and en route to commercialisation, Circa is now considering other derivative possibilities across a range of markets, including monomers, flavours and fragrances and customised solvents.


How to make it happen

We would have not been able to get to this point without ‘belief’ – not just an abstract vision focused on praise, rather the continued support from the market, investors and friends. Where, “yes but” is replaced with “yes and”…having the belief that when you discuss your new product with a global head of R&D for a large multinational, they answer “I think it’s really great, but come back when you’ve turned it into something I can use”. With the support of good partners, you can be confident.

Gradually, that interaction starts to drive real progress. Refining the product to make sure it is of interest to the market, combined with confidence in your manufacturing technology and growing interest from the R&D community, starts to coalesce into some options – perhaps the genesis of a major opportunity.

As with many early stage companies, failing to gain traction with corporate investors (“I can’t see the market clearly enough….”) is a given – but the developing market stories manage to convince enough people to provide funds to support the efforts for the next six months.

Today we still know it’s very much about the story and vision – not the numbers. But the story and vision are very much formed and set in solid market trends – in our case the global drive for increased safety and the need for greater product functionality.

And the ability to keep our milestones focused on tomorrow’s trends rather than today’s uncertainties, enables Circa to be able to continue to develop our story.

Learn more about Circa here.

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Category: Thought Leadership

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