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Start-up to Scale-up: An Interview with Global Bioenergies CEO Marc Delcourt

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Global Bioenergies is one of the few companies in the world and the only one in Europe to develop a process to convert renewable resources into hydrocarbons through fermentation. The company has focused initially on the production of isobutene, one of the major building blocks of petrochemicals, which can be converted into fuels, plastics, organic glass and elastomers.

Q: My understanding is that Global Bioenergies is somewhat focused on biofuels but is also working on developing some other renewable chemicals like plastics and rubbers.

A: Our main program is targeting isobutene which is a platform chemical from which you can derive both ground and air fuels and also materials such as rubbers and plastics (PIBs, plexiglass).

Q: For those renewable biobased materials, how do you incorporate green chemistry industry in the industrial manufacturing processes? How does green chemistry inspire your technology?

A: The term “green chemistry” can be a little bit ambiguous. What we’re doing is developing a biological process. So we’re using bacteria to convert sugars into isobutene. We’re re-writing the software of the bacteria for them to produce isobutene, which is not a molecule produced in nature.

provence-928551_1920.jpgQ: Is that through directed evolution?

A: We have an integrated synthetic biology approach. We’re adding genes, deleting other genes, and improving the efficiency of enzymes which we finally insert in the genome of bacteria. We’re doing a lot of genetic manipulation on these bacteria. This is to implement an artificial metabolic pathway which goes from the core metabolites of the bacteria to isobutene.

Q: What got you started in synthetic biology, as it’s a fairly emergent field?

A: There are two founders of Global Bioenergies. My partner, Philippe Marlière, is very well known on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the concepter of this program, and I’m a scientist myself but I’m more the “doer.” We started working on this in 2008. We raised some venture capital money in France, and were able to develop and prove our concept scientifically. We had shown at that time that we were able to teach bacteria how to produce hydrocarbons. Eventually, we reached the prototype level. Then, we had to raise more money so we brought the company public in 2011. This was intended to transform our lab proof-of-concept into a real industrial asset. Today, we are finishing the construction phase of the demo plant in Germany. It has a nameplate capacity of 100 tons of isobutene per year. We’ll complete the construction this summer, and it will start production this autumn. It’s a lot of work, and it’s very hard to convert a microbiology entity like we were into chemical engineering entity like we are now. But we’re finding success throughout this transition.

All this is in preparation of the first full-size commercial plant to be put online in late 2018 in Eastern France. We’ll be working together with Cristal Union, one of the main sugar producers in France.

Q: What do you think has enabled that success in commercializing?

A: If we look at what happens to comparable companies in Europe and the US, there is always a death valley between the lab and the commercial plant. A lot of problems usually come from the fact that the processes are difficult to scale up. Each time most processes are scaled, some of the efficiency and performance is lost. That’s not what we observe in our case. I think we have a magic bullet at Global Bioenergies, coming from the fact that our process directly produces a gas. The gas volatilizes from the fermentation broth and this greatly simplifies things on the engineering side. It means we don’t face any toxicity issues for the bacteria. The ramp-up will therefore be quick and not as costly as has been experienced in other situations.

Q: You’ve partnered with LanzaTech, who we also work quite closely with. What do you think you’ve gained from that partnership?

A: LanzaTech is one of a number of our partners. We also have other partners like the Cristal Union, a leader in the European sugar industry, and Audi, the car manufacturer. We’ve been involved with LanzaTech since 2011. What we’re developing with them is a second-generation of our process. So, our first generation is based on sugar as a feedstock such as from corn, sugar beets, or agricultural waste. But with LanzaTech, we’d have second-generation feedstocks derived from industrial gases, such as exhaust gas from steel mills. This contains a lot of carbon, especially carbon monoxide. Our aim is to convert these gases into isobutene.

Q: How does this industrial model fit into the idea of a “circular economy”?

A: The idea of a circular economy fits well with what we’re doing with LanzaTech in using steel mill exhaust gas, and it also fits with the first generation of our process where our feedstock is plant-based material. It’s really circular. The plants are harvesting the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it is then converted into sugars. We take the sugar and convert it to hydrocarbons which then end up in the tank of a car where it’s burnt. Eventually it ends up as carbon dioxide. In this circle, the carbon dioxide could then be harvested by the next generation of plants. If this process was optimal, we’d have absolutely no production of carbon dioxide. Of course, you have a cost at each step such as during agriculture, transportation, etc. so you’re not carbon neutral. However, it’s still three to five folds less than what traditional, oil-based industries produce for the same amount of gasoline or weight of material. What we see as our mission for the planet is to complement renewable electricity like wind and solar with our own renewable gasoline for long range transportation, renewable jet fuels and renewable materials.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing biosynthetic and biobased technologies?

A: There are two major challenges. One is the technology itself. It’s difficult to bring these technologies to commercial scale and performance. We expect that Global Bioenergies has the upper hand because of our gas fermentation strategy. The second thing is the economy. Today, the world of industrial biology is facing strong headwinds because the price of oil is very low, but we expect that to change in the next few years.

Q: Finally, based on your experience in starting up a company, what would your advice be to entrepreneurs just beginning in this field? 

A: Focus on only one thing. Don’t try to change several planets; changing one is already a lot.

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