God Speed the Right: a bioeconomy in an exciting, turbulent adolescence

July 26, 2021 |

Fourteen years ago today, the Daily Digest debuted not very auspiciously with two readers and a goal to cover you: the people and technologies of the advanced bioeconomy. Since then we’ve published 36,400 articles to date in the telling of your story, and, though promoted only via word of mouth, the Digest recently passed the 5 million mark in unique readers, followers and viewers. The things that you handle and do continue to fascinate a worldwide and large audience, as they continue to dazzle us.

We live in a world of cars without the driver, stores without the cash register, oil refineries without the petroleum, warehouses without the workers, shirts made from waste gases, ties made from spider silk, and sneakers made from coffee grounds. There’s meat without the cow, milk without the cow, leather without the cow, eggs without the chicken, sushi without the fish, plastics without the landfill, and fuels without the emissions. We have cotton without the plant, dope without the rope, coffee made from mushrooms, and wrappers made from sugar. We live in a strange world that, with the COVID pandemic, became even stranger.

Today, hydrogen’s the buzz, algae’s quiet, sustainable aviation fuel has become real and everywhere is in short supply, renewable chemicals arrived though not so fast and furious as people once thought. Renewable diesel soared, biodiesel became America’s favorite advanced biofuel, and first-generation ethanol kept on plugging along despite the unfavorable market winds that the friends of fossil fuels have learned to blow.

Cellulosic ethanol (switchgrass) sputtered, vegan foods exploded, the GMO debate has cooled, and you don’t hear much about ‘food vs fuel’ any more. E85 sputtered, biomass power made a comeback with Bio-LPG and RNG, having some biobased content is table stakes now for makers of products that wish to be considered sustainable. 

Recycling and circularity are more in vogue, changing the dialogue about residues vs novel crops. We never saw much switchgrass or miscanthus — novel crops have proven tough to command grower attention for, new sorghum has been upsy-downsy but carinata has been coming along, and camelina continues to develop. But there have been amazing advances in grower adoption of new controls, biobased crop protection, and advances in sharing with growers the carbon prices obtained in the fuel markets has been good to see in recent years.

The industry is more global now, more diverse, less dominated by fuels. There’s more experience with scale-up in industrial fermentation, though mid-scale capacity is lagging. There’s not too much “fake it ’til you make it’ but even one venture gone that way is one too many.

There’s more push on electric vehicles than ever, more push-back against internal combustion engines and hydrogen mobility. Most of the companies getting traction in fuels have been focusing their efforts towards heavy-duty applications from trucks to forklifts and jets.

It remains tough to get the general public to care about drop-in substitutes, people are generally “for” alternatives until they’re asked to pay more for a solution that is ‘great on function, great on carbon”. 

These days, there’s more optimism around lignin applications and more ways to use waste residues than ever. 

There are companies using sewer sludge, the waste streams from food and sugar processing, dairy waste, carbon monoxide off-gases, landfill, forest slash and trimmings, corn stover and wheat straw, waste CO2, stranded methane, excess wind or solar power. With almost any residue, there’s someone working on how to capture and use that stream to make product.

Yet, there is more to be done. 

The industry remains in adolescence, growing like a weed and yet not always conforming to expectations of behavior, sometimes the players within seem oblivious to many of the risks, talk back to their elders, and live joyfully in a world of impenetrable slang.

Discipline! has been the cry of every parent to promising adolescents whenever they fall short of their potential. Discipline! Drive down costs! Discipline! Build distribution infrastructure. Yet policymakers could help with a little stability, the “ice cream today, liver tomorrow” diet wears thin. Financiers could help with a little more faith, the “you’re never good enough to dance with” routine gets a little thin. Yet, projects and their developers could overcome their youthful inclinations and do a better job of measuring and mitigating risk, too.

There is yet no one place on Earth where all of these products form the everyday stuff of life, where all transactions are based in the agricultural model — of cultivating the things we need using the free and virtually limitless resources of sunlight, water, atmospheric gases, and the power of biology. We continue to operate in too many places and too many ways in hunter-gatherer mode, killing for food, grabbing for stuff, and digging for riches.

In this transition from the age of fossil resources to the Age of Biology, we will fail far more often than we want and more slowly than we wish. 95 percent of the technologies will prove unworkable, 95 percent of the companies will fail, 95 percent of the money will be wasted.

It was the same with the search for oil, for gold, cars, railroads, rockets, a safe route between Europe and the Spice Island, defense against the plague, or the erection of great cities. Jericho, Luxor, Ankgor Wat, Great Zimbabwe, Persepolis, gone or faded now. Gone too: the Wright Brothers Airplane Company, the Oldsmobile, the DeSoto, the Dumont Television Network, the United Wireless Telegraph Company, MCI Mail, Blockbuster Video, the American Fur Company, the old Penn Station, and on and on and on. Nothing lasts forever except the direction of human invention, which is headed toward biology.

In my youth, at my church, on important occasions, we left the church singing a recessional hymn. To that end, you might remember this wonderful one by William Edward Hickson (better known for popularizing the phrase “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”), called God Speed the Right. 

Now to heav’n our pray’r ascending 

God speed the right; 

In a noble cause contending. 

God speed the right; 

Be that pray’r again repeated, 

God speed the right;

Ne’er despairing, tho’ defeated,

God speed the right; 

Patient, firm, and persevering, 

God speed the right; 

Ne’er th’ event nor danger fearing, 

God speed the right; 

Be our zeal in heav’n recorded. 

With success on earth rewarded, 

God speed the right, 

God speed the right!

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