Savannah Sullivan

Special Feature: Reflections & Outlooks with this Year’s Top 5 Biobased Chemical Firms

Blog Post created by Savannah Sullivan on Dec 16, 2013

The New Year is a time for reflection on the last twelve months and anticipation of the next twelve. As we exit 2013, the green chemistry community has a lot to be proud of considering huge gains made in fields like catalysis, process energy efficiency, and more. We have even more to be excited for in 2014 (a feeling we should get used to since we are currently living during a critical decade for green chemistry, an industry that is expected grow from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion in 2020). As conventional reagents and key elements become increasingly scarce, sustainability and green chemistry technologies have quickly become the underlying strategy for small and multinational chemicals firms. Whether it’s changing from batch to continuous industrial processing or removing toxics from paint, there are innovators across the supply chain transforming their practices and products. However, there is one sector in particular this year that has made incredible upstream and downstream gains: biobased chemicals.


The biobased industry is addressing our environmentally and socioeconomically unsustainable dependence on petroleum feedstocks on all market fronts. Not only are some firms creating biofuels for all modes of transport, they are now beginning to commercialize bio-derived drop-in replacements and alternatives for major building block molecules (ex. succinic acid) and intermediates (ex. 1,4-butanediol). These platforms can then be transformed into a wide range of high-value chemicals that are needed for plastics, adhesives, personal products, and almost any other market you can imagine. Some firms are even creating new materials altogether. Competing against well-established and highly sophisticated petroleum-based technologies is a challenging task, but there are some companies that are starting to give petroleum a run for its money. To capture the successes of this rapidly developing industry, BioFuelsDigest publishes the “Hottest 30 Companies in Biobased Chemicals” list every year. “The speed at which these firms are moving and gaining scale for industrial manufacturing products is completely unprecedented,” says Jim Lane, the BioFuelsDigest editor and publisher. “These companies are six to seven years old and now some of the world’s largest chemical firms are utilizing their technology regularly. You can hardly organize, pull capital together for, and build an ethylene cracking facility in seven years!”


“I continue to encourage the biochemical sector that outreach is a form of lowering your costs, and every company should take this seriously for their stakeholders, their employees, and the growth of the industry,” explains Lane. Lane describes his “hottest” lists as visibility outlets for companies who already have credibility. “These lists are not rating good vs. bad; it’s hot vs. cold and is not about merit. It’s about an optimal blend of visibility and credibility,” Lane says. “Recognition is critical for firms who are publicly trading, especially small and highly innovative firms in the biobased chemicals market.” Everyone benefits from a hot company, and big names like Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, and the Rockefeller Foundation have taken note and invested in several companies on this list.


You may be wondering how BioFuelsDigest determines which companies are hot. It begins with a panel of technical experts, investors, media professionals, and consultants who are familiar with the field; they are given booklets of information compiled by BioFuelsDigest on over 120 firms and then proceed to nominate firms. This is weighted at 50% of the total, and the other half is determined by a combination of social media and subscriber voting. As he’s done this list over the years, Lane notes that the companies have to be more and more sophisticated to compete for top nominations in this process. “They not only have to master their innovative technology,” Lane explains, “they have to master multinational relations within their company and with partners.”


So which companies led the biobased charge in 2013? I spoke with the top five firms on this year’s list (Genomatica, Solazyme, Myriant, LanzaTech, and Elevance) and discussed their technologies, successes over the last year, and what we have to look forward to in the New Year.


1. Genomatica has been pickin' up good fermentations.


Genomatica is at the top of the list this year, for the third year in a row. The California-based firm specializes in developing complete process technologies to make the world’s most widely-used basic and intermediate chemicals from renewable feedstocks, starting with microbe-driven fermentations. You might have seen them in the news on Thanksgiving eve when BASF, the world’s largest chemical firm, announced their first commercial volumes of renewable 1,4-butanediol (1,4-BDO) using Genomatica’s technology. This same technology won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for “Greener Synthetic Pathways,” as well as the Kirkpatrick Chemical Engineering Achievement Award.


In addition to BASF, more than one dozen companies have confirmed that Genomatica’s process works and generates a chemical equivalent to their current 1,4-BDO supply. This quality match is critical since 1,4-BDO is an extremely versatile intermediate that acts as a cross-linking agent for plastics, fibers, coatings, and many more industrial and everyday products. Its largest uses are for the production of the solvent tetrahydrofuran (THF), which is involved in the production of things like car bumpers and spandex pants, and PBT. Given that the 1,4-BDO market is expected to balloon to more than 5.5 million pounds by 2017, commercialized bio-1,4-BDO is a huge milestone.


Genomatica attributes much of its market success to its business model. Through licensing its processes to partners, the firm has unlocked huge potential for accelerating the mainstream chemical industry’s transition to renewable resources. “We’re a partner, or enabler, for the mainstream chemical industry, giving them a way to harness alternative feedstocks, improve their production economics, and improve their environmental footprint,” says Christophe Schilling, Genomatica’s co-founder and CEO.

The year 2013 was productive across all technology platforms for Genomatica. “Genomatica has concretely proven that the processes work for our partners. We have demonstrated cost-competitiveness. Our costs are ten percent lower than one year ago and we expect to keep improving” says Steve Weiss, the firm’s leader for corporate marketing. In addition to delivering commercial 1,4-BDO, the firm made great strides in developing processes and product value chains for additional major chemicals. Most notably, the firm has already demonstrated lab scale chemistries for an end-to-end process for butadiene from non-food biomass. The Italian-based Versalis (a subsidiary of Eni) has signed on as a partner and provided more than $20 million for the butadiene process development, and as of last week Braskem, as Brazilian petrochemical company, has also partnered with Genomatica on this product.

Genomatica.pngPhoto vote submitted for Genomatica in the Hot 30 contest.


On top of these successes, Genomatica has developed an underlying technology platform that lets it develop optimized organisms and processes for the production of a range of other target chemicals. “We have a very good understanding of the range of chemicals our technology can be applied to and have done the early leg work for many high-demand, large market chemicals,” Weiss explains, “and we are moving forward in concert with partners to breathe life into these processes.” The firm has ‘blueprints’ for more than 20 chemicals. Their massive body of intellectual property for their chemical platforms (71 owned or licensed patents, 11 notices of allowance, and 439 additional pending patent applications as of October 31, 2013) is evidence that the mainstream chemical industry will have much to look forward to when watching Genomatica’s progress.


As the firm looks to 2014, Schilling says to watch for more partnerships and more technology innovations. There will be a big push to optimize cost, energy use, and raw material efficiency. Genomatica is working to achieve a similarly short time frame for commercialization for new products as they experienced with 1,4-BDO. Genomatica is also working actively with major partnerships for the development of prioritized biomass feedstocks. “The industry overall is getting to the point where cellulosic biomass is an option,” Weiss says. “We seek to enable a world where our licensees can economically harness the feedstock of their choice.”


2. Solazyme, one small step for microalgae, one giant step for oils.


Headquartered in California and taking second on this year’s biobased list, is Solazyme. In order to convert low-cost plant-based sugars into high-value tailored oils, they have teamed up with the “world’s original oil producers:” microalgae. While natural microalgae produce their oils by a sunlight-driven photosynthetic process, Solazyme’s microalgae are not your typical algae. The company uses heterotrophic organisms and through their technology platform can optimize the cells to produce over 80% oil content compared the 5-10% oil content in wild algae. They have synced this proprietary biotechnology platform with standard industrial fermentation equipment to scale and accelerate the microalgae’s oil development cycle from years to days.


“Our core technological competency allows us to start small, microscopically small, to identify and build solutions to fix problems and build better products starting at the cellular level,” says Solazyme’s Vice President of Sales. The oils Solazyme produces are unique and are not achievable in nature, having significantly altered chain lengths, saturation levels, and functional group additions. Therefore Solazyme has the capability of specifying chemical characteristics such as melting point, and tailoring their materials to fit individual companies’ needs. When it comes to their currently pursued markets, according to Evans there are opportunities to increase the health profiles of food ingredients, add regenerative properties to skincare products, increase the performance of industrial chemical inputs, and create fuels that burn cleaner. Their process also provides the ability to dissociate oil production from geographical location and therefore can address challenges traditional oils face like volatile pricing.


“Solazyme began as a fuels firm, and were not well known at first,” says BioFuelDigest’s Lane. “Their biggest claim to fame was biodiesel from algae, and they painted a car with their logo and brought it to the 2008 Sundance Film Festival where a biofuels film, Fields of Fuel, was screening.” The film ended up winning the audience award that year and people flooded to Solazyme’s car asking questions. “Now they’re into flavors, fragrances, skin creams, and fuels,” Lane explains, “and are selling their dielectric acids to Dow. They’re publically traded with hundreds of employees in a huge office in San Francisco.” To further expand their fuel sales and to actualize the opportunities Solazyme’s technology presents with other product lines, they partner upstream (e.g. with ADM, Bunge, etc.) to increase their feedstock access and downstream (e.g. with AkzoNobel, Sasol, and Mitsui) to increase their market penetration. Most recently the company finalized an agreement with Unilever, a food and consumer products firm who will be purchasing at least 10,000 metric tons of Solazyme’s algal oils. At first Unliver will be using the oils for their personal care products, like Dove, but Solazyme hopes to expand their supply to them as Unilever works towards 100% sustainable agricultural raw materials by 2020.

Solazyme Manufacturing Facility.jpg

Solazyme's manufacturing facility in Illinois.


To meet this and other demands, as they move into 2014 Solazyme is prioritizing sucrose and dextrose as the feedstocks for their processes. They are also evaluating other carbohydrate-based feedstocks that can be supplied at commercial volumes, and like many biobased firms look forward to the day cellulosic options become a viable option. More immediately though, next year is guaranteed to be a big one for the company as they will be commissioning their first commercial scale renewable oil facility, Solazyme Bunge Renewable Oils in Brazil, and start supplying their oils and other products to some of the world’s largest companies. Solazyme is currently in the process of major scale-ups at their production facilities, with plans to double the size of their business in the coming years. The plant will reach a capacity of 100,000 metric tons, or roughly 30 million gallons of oils, when it is fully operational next year and will expand to up to 300,000 metric tons by 2016. On top of this, they are in the process of bringing online other large and commercial scale manufacturing facilities in North America.


3. Myriant, building owning and operating their way to success.


Placing third for the second year in a row, Myriant Corporation, based in Massachusetts, manufactures bio-based drop-in replacements and substitutes for a wide variety of petroleum-based chemicals. They achieve this by altering metabolic pathways of proprietary microorganisms and then using a single-step, anaerobic fermentation process.  Currently their technologies are developed for the building block chemicals succinic acid, acrylic acid, and 1,4-BDO. Their emphasized development is for their bio-succinic acid process which releases 94% less greenhouse gas emissions than the petrochemical-derived equivalent. Their bio-succinic acid serves immediate demand as an intermediate for the processing of butanediol, polybutylene succinate, etc. in multiple application markets ranging from plastic bags to adhesives to shoes. For these technological successes, Myriant was recently selected as a 2013 Red Herring Top 100 Global Company, an award recognizing start-ups from North America, Europe, and Asia. Similar to the BioFuelsDigest, companies for this recognition are judged for their financial performance, technology innovation, management quality, strategy, and market penetration.


“Customers demanding green products and packaging creates a perfect storm for our cost-competitive products. When it has the same purity and performance, if the product can be green without the premium, more companies will migrate,” says Susan Hager, the firm’s Senior Vice President of Communications and Government Affairs. Hundreds of customers several third party labs have confirmed the performance of Myriant’s product quality. And with its build-own-operate model and strategic joint ventures and partnerships to accelerate commercialization, their total conversion cost (including secondary processing costs) is significantly cost-advantaged to petro-based succinic acid.

Myriant.pngMyriant's bio-succinic acid plant in Lake Providence, Louisiana.


“2013 was a transformational year for Myriant,” explains Hager. “We transitioned from development to operations, and we’re excited to demonstrate our ability to execute and look forward to expanding our pipeline.” The biggest milestone Myriant achieved this year was the successful start-up of North America’s first bio-succinic acid plant in Lake Providence, Louisiana. The facility was partially funded through a $50 million cost sharing agreement from the U.S. Department of Energy, $25 million form the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development B&I Loan Guarantee Program, and a $10 million grant from the Lake Providence Port Commission and the Louisiana Department of Transportation. It is the largest bio-succinic acid plant in the world, scheduled to produce more than 30 million pounds per year. The process currently relies on 95-dextrose as the primary sugar at its Lake Providence refinery, and it will also process grain sorghum (non-food) in the coming year. But as they look even further into the future, Myriant sees new feedstocks on the horizon. “We have the ability to utilize and ferment cellulosic feedstocks,” Hager said, “and we look forward to them being present at cost parity compared to other traditional sugars.”


In 2014 Myriant’s leading goals are to continue optimizing the efficiency at the Lake Providence plant and bringing it to capacity. With the goal of expanding total mechanical capacity to 140 million pounds in 2016, they are currently engineering their future designs in the U.S. and S.E. Asia. They also look forward to advancing the rest of their biobased chemical pipeline to include chemicals like acrylic and muconic acids. Next in line to commercialize is their process for one of the most versatile monomers: acrylic acid. In the new year, this product will enter pilot phase validation.


4. LanzaTech, finding treasure in the steel industry's trash.


Gaining three places from last year, the Chicago-based firm LanzaTech is fourth on this year’s list. Since 2005, the company has been developing bio-commodities with their original and primary technology, called “The LanzaTech Process.” Their process is a microbe-driven gas fermentation that allows their platforms to capitalize off of the large volumes of carbon rich waste gas streams expelled from steel mills, oil refineries, municipal waste, agricultural residues, and coal. LanzaTech captures the waste gas as the carbon source for its proprietary organisms, which act as a biocatalyst for the production of pure ethanol and high-value chemicals (e.g. 2,3-butanediol, isoprene, isopropanol, etc.) that serve as the building blocks for rubber, plastics, and synthetic fibers. Their microbe produces hydrogen from carbon and water as required, and is the only so far that can use hydrogen-free gases (such as industrial flue gas from steel production) for the production of ethanol.


LanzaTech’s solution to this “hydrogen puzzle” and their feedstock model is unique among the top five firms on the BioFuelsDigest list. “The beauty of using these waste gases is that they are not commodities and they are not currently tradable,” says LanzaTech CEO Dr. Jennifer Holmgren. “We have the potential to decouple a percentage of the commodity chemicals market from the commodity feedstocks.” This carbon is typically flared as a waste product, increasing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. When it comes to applying this much needed method to end markets, the company has set its eyes on aviation fuel. “Estimates show that our process can apply to 65 percent of the world’s steel mills, offering the potential to produce 19 percent of the world’s current jet fuel demand, and an overall reduction in greenhouse gases by 50-60 percent compared to traditional jet fuel,” explains Holmgren. With numbers like these it isn’t surprising to learn that the company’s steel mill gas-ethanol technology at their pre-commercial facility in China with Shougang group recently became the first in the world to be certified by the independent Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. This is an exciting development for consumers, and especially the aviation sector including Virgin Atlantic and Boeing who have partnered with LanzaTech for the past few years to commercialize biobased jet fuel derived from such waste gases.


LanzaTech Demo Shougang.jpgLanzaTech's Shougang demo plant certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.


This year has been an action-packed year for LanzaTech and for its partners. At its core, LanzaTech is a technology company that thrives on open innovation and unites a multidisciplinary team to create new applications for their novel process. In order to move their concepts to commercial reality, the company welcomes research partnerships in addition to its commercial ones. This approach is exemplified by their collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), led by the University of Washington (UW); a partnership that kicked off this year for the firm. With the goal of directly converting methane to diesel, UW is genetically modifying LanzaTech’s microbes and NREL is demonstrating the productivity of the fermentation with these microbes while assessing their economic potential.


Looking to 2014, LanzaTech has big plans and the company is always searching for the next door to open. “As we move into 2014, our focus will be on further diversifying our product suite beyond ethanol to commercial production of green chemicals and aviation fuels,” said Holmgren. First and foremost, they look forward to bringing their first commercial site online next year. Currently, site location and engineering plans for two full commercial facilities in China are underway; the first site with Baosteel will have a capacity of 10 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol annually beginning in 2014. Once they have commercial scale quantities of ethanol produced, they will have the volumes necessary to accelerate their jet fuel program (Virgin Airlines will be the first to fill their tanks). Furthermore, their Freedom Pines facility in Soperton, GA focusing on biomass syngas from forestry residues is expected to begin production at pre-commercial levels next year.


5. Elevance, Breaking Bonds.


For the second year in a row, the Illinois based firm Elevance placed in the top five of the BioFuels Digest biobased list. They have attracted the attention of the chemical community by delivering novel specialty chemicals from natural oils that outperform petrochemical or oleochemical options. Their technology is centered upon the metathesis process, where existing double bonds between carbon atoms are broken and the resulting pieces changes places. Elevance uses this Nobel-prize-winning catalysis technology developed by Dr. Robert H. Grubbs, Dr. Yves Chauvin, and Dr. Richard Schrock to break down and recombine natural oil fragments into their end products. These new molecules combine the functional attributes of petrochemicals and oleochemicals into a single molecule, thereby increasing the functionality efficiency of their produced materials.


Their application of metathesis catalysis won Elevance the U.S. EPA’s 2012 “Small Business” Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award. The process is a major advancement for sustainable chemistry as it consumes significantly less energy than conventional technologies, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent in comparison. This difference in impact is due in part to fewer major process steps as well as lower operating temperatures and pressures to generate the products. On top of these energy efficiency benefits, there is limited production of hazardous and toxic by-products compared to petrochemical technology. The end result is a wide range of bio-based specialty chemicals that meet market needs and address a market of nearly $180 billion.


The Elevance "bee" logo.


Collaborations that began initially with the U.S. Department of Energy and then expanded to nearly one dozen industry leaders have allowed Elevance to introduce a growing portfolio of economically compelling high-performance products.  The company’s Inherent™ renewable building blocks include C18 dibasic acid which enables a wide range of novel polyesters or nylons, and the company’s ingredients include their first 100% plant-based personal care product lines. Their multifunctional polymer and emollient products can be incorporated into a wide range of skin, hair, and cosmetic products. Their renewable alpha olefins can replace n-paraffins which are used to produce surfactants and have become relatively expensive as crude oil prices rise. Elevance is the only company to date that has economically produced these chemicals.


Fueling this innovation is Elevance's wide range of feedstock oil options, which include soy, palm, canola, corn, jatropha, algae, tallow, and mustard. “We are currently using feedstocks that allow us to have a secure and cost-effective source,” says Andy Shafer, the Executive Vice President of Sales & Market Development, “but we are constantly looking for alternatives and helping suppliers provide these oils.” The firm frequently tests new oils, discovering what would be useful for accelerating the development and implementation of the emerging feedstocks. This contribution to the bio-feedstock market is critical and with their collaborative business model, they leverage complementary capabilities and accelerate time to market. “We are helping our customers achieve their goals through innovation,” says Shafer. “Our ingredients and renewable building blocks enable our partners to create new and expanded product lines with improved product performance that will build value and grow their business with more sustainable solutions.” An example of how they have delivered is in the detergent market. Their specialty chemicals enable detergent products that have more concentrated formulations and improved solvency (better cleaning) while working in cold water (reduced energy costs).


The firm has also taken steps this year in their feedstock and product processing. In early 2013 Elevance, with Wilmar International Limited, successfully started up and is now operating a biorefinery with continuous processing in Gresik, Indonesia, which is a significant step change from their previous batch operations. This facility delivers lower production costs, energy consumption, and capital expenditures than petrochemical refineries. Elevance is also moving forward with their second biorefinery to be located in Natchez, Mississippi. Initially using soybean and canola oil as feedstocks, they will be able to make over 600 million pounds of their products per year by 2016 at this site. During 2014, we can expect to see Elevance continue to unveil novel performance from ingredients and renewable building blocks as well as their derivatives. The firm will be pushing forward with all three of their large market platforms, Consumer and Industrial Ingredients, Lubricants and Additives as well as Engineered Polymers and Coatings, while exploring additional opportunities as they arise.


Looking Ahead


As you can see, these biobased chemical technologies are innovative and can reduce toxics, greenhouse gas emissions, and supply chain concerns. In just years we have been able to watch these companies transform and in some cases even surpass large, established firms in value. That said, they are not free from the challenges that all burgeoning industries face. The critical period from research to market (also known as the Valley of Death) is long and is one of the greatest battles they must overcome. To succeed, innovators must continue to seek and embrace new private and public supporters to avoid the Valley. These firms must continue to integrate their value chains into existing infrastructure and as they await the day of cellulosic feedstocks, they must continue to meet the challenge of diversifying their inputs. If 2013 proved anything it’s that these companies are pushing forward at full speed to tackle these challenges, so stay tuned in 2014 to see what is next!



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