Takeaways: 10 Big Bioeconomy Trendlines at ABLC for fuels, chemicals, materials, food and feed

July 12, 2020 |

Here are the Top 10 Trendlines we saw and heard from the 8000+ delegates and viewers at ABLC 2020.

1. The thundering herd. One informed firm that does extensive amounts of technology scouting, due diligence and market price forecasting referred to a thundering herd of investors that are poised to enter the industry with a large wave of investment — searching for higher returns and sustainable options at a time when technologies and carbon schemes are now maturing.

2. Geographies are evolving their preferred technologies around their specific needs and feedstocks.  Eastern Europe and India for cellulosic ethanol. Brazil for conventional ethanol. US and Canada for advanced materials, new foods, renewable diesel and RNG. East Asia and Australia for hydrogen. Europe for jet fuel and renewable diesel and other advanced ultra-low carbon fuels, plus alternative plastics. Nordics for advanced feeds, jet and wood-based applications in chemicals, fuels and materials.

3. New technologies advancing to expand the feedstock pool — especially for wood (for lower value applications) and algae (for higher-value apps). The US role in advanced R&D was never more present and obvious than in projects such as the Feedstock Conversion Interface Consortium and support for development of technologies such as Forest Concepts’ Crumbler, and USDA investment in novel crop development (including hemp, carinata, algae and pennycress). More work is needed clearly in unlocking wood as a feedstock, commencing with forest residues, beetle-killed pine and forest thinnings. Some pointed to lobbying work to remove restrictions on access to forest residues from federal lands.

4. The need for public support of pilots and demonstrations of new technology. A high-level group of industry CEOs targeted the demonstration of advanced technology to de-risk private investment down to affordable costs of capital. The message from the public sector was clear — support would be there if industry can bring legislators to the table to make specific appropriations and direct investment toward the bioeconomy. It was not enough to lobby for support from the executive branches of government, alone.

5. The pivot from technology push to consumer pull.  Companies like Genomatica, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and those pursuing renewable jet and marine fuels are gaining traction based on consumer pull, rather than on being a great technology in search of a problem to solve. Consumer demand for alternatives to petroleum-fuels have led to competition between low-carbon fuels and EVs and in power to competition between biomass power and solar/wind technology. In chemicals and materials, the role of biobased technologies as the primary driver of alternatives is more clear — there are no solar yoga pants, as LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren is known to observe. Praj’s announcement this week of an entry into renewable chemicals and materials is a sign of the times.

6. Technologies with the hottest appeal, renewable natural gas, renewable diesel, ethanol upgrade (and ethanol plant bolt-ons), plastics (made from biomass or recycled plastic). The formation of a 12-company Japan JV, R Plus Japan, to pursue virgin plastics made from waste plastics by commercializing Anellotech technology, was one of the highlight announcements of the week, and points to the trend.

7. From drop-ins to better than. Companies like DuPont, Avantium, and Checkerspot were clear that they see the opportunities less in developing drop-ins that have high-priced sustainability attributes at a time when there’s no cost on producers for emissions related to bringing unsustainable chemicals and materials to the market — but that bio-advantaged molecules have a strong pull from consumers and supply chain customers.

8. The debate over the place of EVs and the oil industry. Attendees varied in their attitudes toward the oil & gas incumbents and the EV upstarts. The trend is veering away from a lockstep with the environmental movement in casting oil & gas as a monolithic industry of villains, and discussing EVs as a threat to biofuels. A new view that oil & gas incumbents form a spectrum of potential partners, and that Oil & Gas has more commonalities than differences with the Advanced Bioeconomy, and that efforts should focus less on demonizing petroleum and instead developing more robust alternatives and exciting consumers about the sustainability that can be achieved with existing infrastructure.

9. The controversy over hydrogen fuels rages.We’ve said it before., No one will give you infrastructure for Christmas. Those who point to hydrogen’s shortcomings as a transportation fuel (compared to EVs) are actually pointing to the problems of infrastructure rather than any failings in fuel cell technology. Advocates for hydrogen are going to have to make the case for applications that can work within the existing infrastructure, or make a case for building new infrastructure at public cost — a nascent hydrogen fuel industry will never be able to build an infrastructure on its own that will rival the electric grids that blanket the developed world.

10. Not going back, sustainability not less important, but more important. United Airlines and Finnair both said it, the COVID crisis has hit airlines harder than anyone, but the airline industry doesn’t see sustainability as less important to their future because of the crisis, but more important. People have seen the cleaner skies, and won’t want to give them back. They have had to explore alternatives to business travel and become accustomed to them. If airlines are going to win back all their customers, sustainability is going to be an irreplaceable component part of their story.

But even more, we heard about an industry in search of a message. Start your story about your company with your values. Values drive habits, habits drive actions, actions change the world, so if you want to change the world, start with values. When in front of stakeholders –  policymakers, consumers, the general public, students, activists. You are not a technology, you are a solution to a problem, be it greenhouse gas emissions, landfills, waste plastic, the lack of jobs in a region, the lack of value or new markets for a given feedstock. That’s your story. How you use technology to solve that problem. And how you could use some help from stakeholders because this industrial transformation is bigger than anyone and no one can do it alone, we have to do it together.

The crowds at ABLC were vast, more than 8,000 so far have participated as delegates or in viewing sessions via BioChannel.TV. That’s a far cry from the 278 that gathered at the first ABLC in 2010, and shows that the momentum is strong even if COVID prevents for a time the possibility of the right leaders gathering in one place and one time for real dialogue on the real issues, The real dialogue is happening all over the world now, and the crowds at ABLC continue to provide evidence that the bioeconomy is growing fast and still networking like crazy.

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