Striking Footprint: Cargill, Helm take a giant leap for biobased BDO

June 14, 2021 |

News arrived late last week that Cargill and HELM have formed a JV known as Qore to help leading brands replace fossil-based chemistries with bio-based intermediates, and are investing a combined $300 million to build the first commercial-scale, renewable BDO (1,4-butanediol) facility in the U.S.

Today, let’s look behind the headlines. Despite all the “California, Here I Come” exuberance of the bio-based fuels sector, we haven’t seen the same activity levels on the biobased materials side. “Eddyville, Here I Come” doesn’t have quite the same ring as California’s best-selling anthem. Yet, in its own way, it is even bigger news. As the partners noted in their announce, this is the first commercial-scale, renewable BDO facility in the U.S. It’s perhaps the biggest signal we’ve seen about the shape of the post-COVID industrial world.

It’s not D-Day, heroes hitting the Normandy beaches to save the world, but it might be B-Day, the day when the scale tipped and the payday for a long effort to re-industrialize the world on sustainable principles might be in sight. 

What exactly is BDO, how is it made biologically and by whom? Why Eddyville, why these partners, why now? There’s lots to unpack in this storyline.

What is BDO, anyhow? Why biology?

It’s a chemical intermediate important in the apparel, automotive, electronics and packaging industries. Which is to say, if you can hold it, there’s a pretty good chance there’s some BDO in it. The customers of those products are screaming for sustainable alternatives. Well, that sounds a little angry. Let’s say they are signaling for sustainable alternatives, they are wigwagging the manufacturers to flag them towards a lower carbon footprint.

Some time ago, Genomatica came up with a biology-based process that cut emissions by more than 50 percent, yet produced a drop-in replacement with no reduction in performance. Now, Cargill and HELM have driven that figure to 93 percent using the Genomatica process, which they’ve licensed for this project.

So, the Qore joint venture will focus on producing QIRA, the next-generation 1,4-butanediol (BDO). Accordingly, QIRA can be used for making spandex and other polyester-based chemical fibers as well as biodegradable plastics, polyurethane coatings, sealants and artificial leathers, thereby improving their environmental footprint.

The project details

Cargill and HELM plan to build the bio-based intermediate production facility at Cargill’s existing biotechnology campus and corn refining operation in Eddyville, Iowa. The plant will be completed and operating in 2024 to meet the demanding specification of product supply chains. Qore is using Cargill’s global feedstock supply and fermentation manufacturing expertise to initially produce and distribute an expected 65,000 metric tons per year minimally of its first bio-intermediate, QIRA. HELM will work with brand owners, original equipment manufacturers and their suppliers to incorporate QIRA into their respective products.

What’s great about Now?

In the world of industrial transition, there’s an awful lot of “Later” in corporate planning and not very much “Now”. So, there’s often a lot of chatter about “net zero by 2050”, for example, the key word in that phrase being “2050”, which is another way of saying that “none of us making this announcement will actually be working in these same roles and companies when it comes time to redeem this pledge”. All too many companies remind us here in Digestville of how Esmerelda sang in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “And though I will die / Long before that morning comes / I’ll die while believing still / It will come when I am gone.”

Some companies, some projects have found that there’s an alternative to the Leisure of Later in the Power of Now. Here’s one. Novamont’s proven the process technology at a smaller scale in Europe. Now, we’re looking at 65,000 tons per year.

Cargill’s VP Jill Zullo told me, “Consumers really have seen, people in true lockdown saw the water in the canals in Venice and we’ve seen the mountain peaks appearing in the Indian skies. There’s a connection we are all now feeling between the things we do in our daily lives and impact on the environment. We’ve seen it. That has driven consumers to be more demanding. Consumers and brand owners are looking for the ways like never before.”

“It’s been a long time coming, we’ve been hard at work. A couple of good things that happened along the way, Genomatica licensed before to Novamont and they have done a great job scaling. We are going to a larger scale. We knew we could scale this in term of the feedstock and supply chain, we wanted to find the right partners.”

Building Back Better

Now feels like the right time, we have a new Administration and we see what the President is putting in front of Congress. This is a way forward for the U.S. to take advantage of strength in feedstocks and manufacturing. There are a lot of connections to infrastructure in this. And, absolutely, people are looking for sustainable options. This is all about building back better.

Kudos to Eddyville

Eddyville, Iowa is the location, and was singled out as being not only simply a place to execute a process but for being home to a team whose experience proved a critical factor in the launch. 

As Jill Zullo explained, “it’s not only one of our largest fermentation facilities, it was our first, and they’ve developed amazing practices from getting feedstock and right through the process. We have another campus in Blair excellent as well, but factors like all the renewable power in Iowa and the team’s tremendous experience made Eddyville the right place to go.”

Worth noting all that wind energy. Iowa’s the #2 wind state in the U.S., as you may not know. We’re starting to see the cross-over between a portfolio of sustainable investments — the cumulative effect in driving down the carbon footprint. A process that was, in carbon terms, Bigfoot has come down to a small ballet slipper — and is headed down and down and down.

Some food for thought

First, it’s a ‘second commercial’ for this process. As hard as it is to get a first commercial built, think how many first commercials never lead to a second for a long, long time — sometimes, ever. That’s real validation that the process works on all fronts — as a process, the economics, the customer acceptance.

Second, global capacity for bio-based BDO is now in the 100,000 tons per year range. That’s a lot of yoga pants. We’re starting to see ‘change the world’ volumes. 

Thirdly, here’s a shift on the applications. Novamont wanted bio-based BDO, more or less, for their compostable bioplastics. Qore is aiming much more broadly — here come the spandex and everything else.

93 percent lower emissions than conventional materials — could it go lower?

“Indeed, there could be more,’ Zullo told The Digest. “We have ideas for even more improvements, we want to be pragmatic, 93 percent reduction, we think there’s more room. All of those, sustainability numbers, cost and consumer demand. 

Reaction from the stakeholders

“With consumers demanding more sustainable products, brands are not only looking for more innovative, environmentally-friendly solutions but also are needing supplier capabilities and resources that can consistently meet those expectations,” said Jill Zullo, Vice President, Biointermediates/Bioindustrial at Cargill. “This new venture combines Cargill’s end-to-end supply chain and long-standing, successful product commercialization in several bioindustrial markets with HELM’s expertise in effectively bringing unique chemical applications and other creative solutions to life and to the market.”

“For HELM Chemicals, this joint venture marks an important milestone in our commitment to providing solutions for a successful transformation to a sustainable planet and society. Through partnership and collaboration with brand owners and their suppliers, we will bring sustainable product options to these consumer-driven industries that will not only help them differentiate their brands but also create a more environmentally responsible future,” said Axel Viering, Member of the Executive Board for Business Line Chemicals at HELM.

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