The Digest turns 15: The 7 Top Trends, 10 Most Bizarre Stories, and 2 mindsets, 3 regrets, many blessings

July 26, 2022 |

Today, The Daily Digest turns 15, it’s our quinceañera!

We started the Digest on July 27, 2007 because it seemed to me, then as now, that the industry could use a good 5-minute round-up of what’s going on around the globe. ABLC came along, then the CIRCULAR and not long ago, ROBIN.

It seems like a big leap from the family-owned ethanol plants we covered then to today’s ties made from spider silk, meat without the cow and aviation fuels with zero emissions. But, not really.

Some 3,900 editions and 42,000 stories later, we’re humbled by the daily newsflow but determined to keep up with all your astonishing progress in science and as companies, for an audience of more than 5.6 million readers in 200 countries.

The Glass

I am often asked, are you a pessimist or an optimist when it comes to the future of this sector or that, or this company or that? Put another way, people are asking “Is the advanced bioeconomy glass half-full, or half-empty?”

The policymaker says: It was supposed to be a full glass, but we couldn’t get the House to go along.

The grower says: We don’t say half-empty, we say drought-tolerant.

The scientist says: I’m hoping for a grant to study this question.

The financier says: So, what could you do if I gave you a glass that was a quarter full?

The environmentalist says: There used to be a lot more water in the glass before the corn industry got going.

The process engineer says: we’re debottlenecking the reactor and the glass will be full when we complete commissioning.

The promoter says: We don’t say half-full, we say “full capacity” at demonstration scale for now, and full-scale in about five years.

Optimists, pessimists, process engineers, scientists, financier, environmentalists, policymakers, feedstock developer — we’re pleased to call so many of you our readers. and friends. We thank you for staying with us, and staying with the story — through the years that have gone by, and the years to come.

The 7 Top Trends of the Year

1. The SAF Rush. Suddenly, renewable jet fuel, under development lo these many years, is hot, hot, hot. The technology has been de-risked for the HEFA pathway. Carbon prices and airline demand are in superb shape. What remains is the problem of feedstock. There’s not enough to go around and it costs too much. Companies like Alder Fuels and Infinium may have new solutions to bring, in time, with VFA fuels from the former and electrofuels from the latter.

2. Renewable diesel’s massive expansion. The renewable diesel project list is so long, it’s over 10 billion gallons of announced capacity. Will they all get built? Probably not. Is there enough feedstock? Not now, but nerw tech is coming as we mentioned above, to tap CO2 and wood waste in order to expand the basket.

3. Biogas’s Days of Summer. If you are an owner of dairy waste, and feeling lonely, look outside the front gate, there’s a stack of project developers there like college football coaches recruiting a star high school quarterback. The projects are becoming bigger, and bigger players are in the mix. But take a company like Vanguard which has as many as 100 prokects in planning – a company that only was founded a short few years ago.

4. More vegan food and less companies. Vegan foods are popular and established now by the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Sales are growing, growing, growing. AT one point there were something like 500 different start-ups in the sector, only a fraction of these are going to make it in the long-term, not that they have bad ideas or technology, it’s just the winnowing process at work.

5. Policy has shifted towards advanced. The days when all policies were built around first-gen fuel ethanol and more or less everyone else was hind piggy, are over. In the EU, advanced fuels have triumphed completely, in India the tilt is decisively towards cellulosic fuels. In the US and Canada, all developers are coming up with creative ways to reduce or eliminate carbon in the quest for Net Zero to gain the advantages available in Low Carbon Fuel Standards.

6. Finance is never easy, but it is easier these days. In part because the financial industry has put together the financial platforms from risk insurance to SPAC vehicles. Also because of the hope that loan guarantees will finally become available to liquid fuel technologies. 

7. Materials and chemicals have lately been rocking, not just because oil prices have been rising but because of a surge of consumer interest in sustainable as wearables. Intermediates like caprolactam and BDO are now being produced affordable at scale, and whether it is ties from spider silk or leather without the cow, we have reported on average more than 5 scientific advances per week all year.

The 10 Most Bizarre Stories of the Year

There’s been so much to choose from this year — it’s hard to beleive the a US Navy project to weaponize hagfish slime, and lampshades made of coffee waste and orange peels didn’t make the list. Here are the top 10.

1. Science may have jumped the shark with fish sperm bioplastic cup

2. I don’t see London or France, thanks to biodegradable underpants

3. Cardboard pregnancy test targets greener gestation 

4. Femtech startup raises cash for seaweed-based tampons

5. Rhode Island designer makes instruments from mushrooms and eggshells

6. “Living” robot dress is here to remind us life is fleeting

7. Scottish startup looks to convert fish waste into cleaning ingredients

8“Horniculture” Society promotes safe senior sex with biodegradable, veggie-themed condoms

9. Wool urn offers “comforting symbolism” before biodegrading

10. Cultivated wildebeest could soon appear on South African menus and lab-grown lion and zebra meat heads for testing.

And a bonus in the “just kidding department”

11. “Eat a Swede” satirically promotes cultivated human meat

Two minds, 3 regrets and a cornucopia of blessings

We live in a two-minded age.

On the one hand, we crave growth and the jobs, prosperity, human dignity, access to education and health, and projectable national power that growth brings. On the other hand, we regret the resource depletion and competition, waste streams, unequal sharing of benefits, infrastructure needs, investment requirements and general shredding of “business as usual” that growth brings in its creative, destructive wake.

We regret that some of our friends in the environmental community do not share the view that weak national policies on land use, rather than biofuels as a technology class, are at the heart of land use changes that they find appalling. We also regret that they do not see good in a strong rural economy, in refining capacity for renewables that dampen the volatility of fuel prices, or see value in maintaining multiple ways to power a car.

When the Visigoths sacked Rome, they were seeking a better sharing of the spoils of the Roman Empire. Sigh, there’s nothing new in the debate over the just sharing of resources, except that technology has now made it possible to make fuels from waste and food from waste — we regret that many of our friends fall into the trap of thinking that 3rd world malnutrition is a product of insufficient food rather than a product of income inequality — and disagree that the bioeconomy brings more value to the 3rd world, not less. 

But we have more to be excited about than to be troubled about. Industrial biotechnology is offering new options that will transform the companies that use or make these products, the communities they operate in, and the markets they serve.

During the short life of the Digest, hundreds of companies have been formed and thousands of new bio-based products have come to market. Many companies will fail, just as railroads, automakers, computer makers and websites failed. 

Billions of gallons in new capacity have been built. Sustainability of biofuel technologies old and new has been increased. Stability has improved. 

The industry has much to be proud of, and much to be thankful for.

It Takes a Village

It takes a village to make a Digest, as it turns out, and we are lucky to live in the virtual village we have. We are very grateful for all our sponsors, conference volunteers, guest columnists, event staff, and technology service providers. 

We also have been blessed to have the help of Flavia Marples Lane (since Day 1) Bill Lundberg (since 2009), Paula Jackson (since 2016) to manage ABLC and assist our sponsors.  

The Digest, Circular and ROBIN have been written and produced by Helena Tavares Kennedy (2016-2022), Isabel Lane (2010-2015), Rebecca Coons (2017-now), Lucas Santucci (2010-now), Tom Saidak (2011-2015), Joelle Brink (2009-12), Meghan Sapp (2011-now), Briana Sapp (2012-2014), Gary Scoggins (2016-2018), Juan Pedro Tomas (2022-now), Maia Taylor (2022-now) and Michael Theroux (2011).

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