Habemus Feedstock?
 The Conclave gathers: The pursuit of circular feedstocks for 
renewable chemicals and materials

March 29, 2023 |

Today, a tale of the pistachio tree, or rather its cousin in the pistachia family. the terebinth — and therein lies a bioeconomy yarn that will take us from ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary La Jolla, California, where several dozens of the bioeconomy’s best and brightest are conclaved this week to solve big problems.

If you’ve ever looked at a clear plastic bottle and wondered at where the material comes from — and no one will shame you if you haven’t — 70 percent comes from terephthalic acid, which takes its name from the lovely Terebinth, from which it was first produced. 

Yes, you can feed CO2, water and sunlight to the Terebinth and it will produce a precursor to clear plastic bottles. The two other precursors can be made from plant sugars (ethylene glycol) and wood tar (phthalic acid). Fermenting sugars and distilling wood are Bronze Age technologies, boring old tech when Socrates walked the earth.

So, you might look at the lovely pistachia and wonder how we got into this petroleum problem in the first place. Why did we not make our clear plastic bottles by letting our friend the Terebinth pull CO2 from the sky, water from the ground, and use free energy from the sun? You might ask, indeed.

The problem, as with so much of biology, is that humanity is impatient and cheap, and plants do not make our preferred products at the rates and yields we want. Some people rob a bank instead of scrimping and saving, and all of us take the petroleum shortcut and use something that nature made over the millennia, petroleum, when the Earth would be better off if we used something else. We have the same problem with petroleum that we have when we pay for goods on the credit card instead of the paycheck — eventually, the consequences catch up with us. And. Now. They. Have.

In La Jolla, the Schmidt Futures’ crack bioeconomy brigade, ably led by Genevieve Croft and Mary Maxon, has created a Convening of the Worthies (my name for it, not theirs) to consider what might be done to accelerate the transition to circular feedstocks. They’ve been conclaved for two days. There’s no white smoke yet from the chimney, no Habemus Papam, or should I write Habemus Feedstock, yet the the long-shots have been winnowed, the list is narrow now, the votes count, the voices in the conclave, though calm, are insistent as they work from discord to concord. Soon, a feedstock line of research will emerge onto the balcony in white robes and give its Urbi et Orbi blessing.

The time is right; chemicals and materials have gained scant attention from a world interested in new fuels, vehicles and net zero tailpipes. Yet, they are created from petroleum in co-processing that also makes gasoline. You make the one because you are making the other, more or less.

No gasoline? No cushions, no plastics, no cars, no houses, and so forth, except with painful, exorbitant transformation of refinery process. The end of the era of co-processing chemicals with gasoline, if not exactly nigh upon us, at least is certainly being handed its hat and coat and being given directions to the door. 

Enter, the bioeconomy. I gaze at the pistachia, but it is far from as simple as planting a grove of them out in the Levant somewhere and running our civilization like in the good old days of Assyria, Babylon and Sumer. Would it were so easy as just learning cuneiform and hieroglyphics and off we go, climate woes behind us.

So cometh the hard yards of the bioeconomy task. Tailoring the product to meet a spec, increasing the yield, and finding an affordable way to extract it. The plant or residue doesn’t understand what we are trying to do with it, despite our best efforts to explain our bold goals to them.

I am alone here in musing about the pistachia groves south of the Caucasus some 8,000 years ago, when they were first used by our ancestors. Everyone else’s eyes are fixed ahead — after all, it is Schmidt Futures, not Schmidt Past.

Plus, clear plastic bottles is neither Task #1 or Task #Only in the bioeconomy, even in the small but prosperous duchy known as Renewable Chemicals & Materials. These folk are busy, and let me tell you when you whip up an idea frenzy with the likes of Doug Cameron, Sean Simpson, Andrew Held, Nichole Fitzgerald, Jordan Solomon, Darcy Prather, Katy Christensen, and Sarah Richardson, you need a set of fast note-takers. And those are just a handful of the Worthies.

This week, Schmidt Futures and their partners, the Foundation for Food & Agricultural Research, have convened not only an impressive group, they’ve uncovered hundreds of ideas, far too many. So, it’s a College of Cardinals, the BioCardinale, vying to place the white mitre on this idea, or that.

There are differing and complex thoughts about scale, timelines, feedstock families, products of interest, some like ferm, some prefer therm. I illustrate here with a photo of the down-selects from the original BitTorrent of suggestions. It’s a Grove of Ideas.

At the center of the problem is a circle. The BioCardinale have been tasked to consider circularity — and that means, to put it in a (pistachio) nutshell, waste.

We can dream of an easy transition to renewables, but we won’t get it. Would it was as simple as finding pistachia trees to make valuable products using atmospheric CO2, water and sunlight, in a one-pot reaction. I long for Babylon.

Here’s the real deal, served over ice and with bitters: most of our current biotechnologies are packed to the gills with risk, high cost and non-circular enough you might call them squares. Engineering biology over a few decades to downshift the risk, circularize the process, and develop new functionalities as opposed to simply re-creating what has been made from petroleum — it all sounds like bio-heaven.

Many things are possible with unlimited time, perhaps all things are. But lack of time is driving the vote. We have so little of it now, time that is. It is adapt, move, or perish. As one of the Due Diligence Wolfpack, Paul Bryan, observed, “it is no longer as simple as tossing our animal skins over our shoulders, loading our worldly goods on a sledge, and marching off to some place advantaged by climate change.” May I interest you in an option on some hectares of Canadian tundra?

At the meeting, my own message was simple, I brought it from ABLC, and it is that we need to add a zero to our concept of scale and subtract a zero from our concept of time.

So I stay positive about all promising technology, but I make an extra effort to smile when methane or syngas is mentioned; gases in general.

Yes, I can hear your “how dare you” already, ringing in my ear like a jet engine. So let me explain. We have valuable large market products we can make from it, such as fuels and plastics. We have pipelines to move it for bioconversion, an accounting system known as book-and-claim to minimize the use of carbon to move feedstock, and we have technology in the form of anaerobic digestion. Methane can be converted to jet fuel, diesel and so forth. It is a very useful platform intermediate for the bioeconomy. It also gives a target for every complex biomass — make methane, and let others make products from methane. 

Some here in LaJolla are gasophiles, not many. Sean Simpson of LanzaTech, Molly Morse of Mango Materials. Others are more focused on starch, stover, energy crops — I doubt that anything related to methane will emerge in the papal vestments. I may whisper to myself the papal prayer, “Sancti Apostoli Petrus et Paulus:de quorum potestate et auctoritate confidimus, ipsi intercedant pro nobis ad Dominum,” but I only whisper it, and it is not from fear. All directed research by hard-working people leads to good things in the bioeconomy. I will cheer for gases, but I am an evangelist for the Church of Now.

Now is what we have and Babylon has no more. We might consider, before yielding to the calls to inaction, why Assyria has come and gone. For a moment, imagine the distractions and puzzles that beset the Sumerians, lest we share their fate.

As T.S. Eliot once put it so well in The Waste Land,O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

The topics that have made the down select, or what we might call (here in the Conclave) the Papabili? Starch, the products and processes of anaerobic digestion, the pursuit of homogenous feedstocks, the world of better modeling, the biology-chemistry linkage, data and knowledge sharing, and waste gases as platform feedstocks or intermediates.

One line of research will be chosen, perhaps two, there may be co-consuls. We’ll know more soon. Schmidt and FFAR need time to re-group. For now, methane accelerators are still in the mix  two of the papabili are methanesque —  so I feel a little like someone who put the Florida Atlantic Owls into their Final Four bracket – hopeful but not confident.

I am astonished, and happily so, that Schmidt Futures took this on, and found FFAR to partner with. I have long thought that stuff like clothes, car parts, housing materials are the forgotten victims of climate change and climate remediation. It is good to see materials on the front burner, circularity a mandate, and feedstocks the focus.

So, methane. Have a pistachio, and think about it. Meanwhile, we await the Schmidt Futures report.

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