3D printing has encouraged printable thermoplastic materials development and facilitated their application in functional prototyping, molds and tooling, and final part production. Only a small subset of these materials come from biological sources, making the production and disposal of 3D printed parts just as concerning for consumers and environmentally conscious businesses as in conventional manufacturing. New biopolymers currently in development for conventional manufacturing can provide interesting opportunities for expanding biopolymer use in 3D printing applications. Continue reading
Butadiene is an important petrochemical with a market size of more than $40 billion, and around 60% of butadiene goes into synthetic rubber production. The relatively recent exploitation of shale gas has resulted in butadiene scarcity, since natural gas chemical feedstocks have fewer C4 hydrocarbons than oil feedstocks used in petrochemical production. This shortage translates into the continuous climb in the price of butadiene, which at $0.70/lb is currently more than 10% to 30% higher than it was last year.
The supply gap, which is projected to widen as shale gas exploitation intensifies, creates an incentive for technology developers to engineer novel butadiene production strategies that take in either biomass or natural gas as feedstock. For example, in June, BASF and Linde announced a collaboration for the development of on-purpose production of butadiene from butane. A similar announcement from Honeywell UOP came shortly thereafter, where the company licenses TPC Group’s OXO-D technology to convert butane to butadiene.
In addition to these more recent announcements, we have been closely following the progress of start-ups focusing on bio-based butadiene. Global Bioenergies, in partnership with Synthos, is pursuing a direct route to isobutadiene through genetically modified Escherichia coli. LanzaTech has ongoing projects with Invista and SK Innovation to produce butadiene either from LanzaTech’s carbon monoxide based 2,3-butanediol or through direct fermentation. Genomatica is collaborating with Versalis and Braskem to develop butadiene from renewable feedstocks (client registration required). Additionally, Braskem recently opened a research and development (R&D) center where one of its R&D projects is on renewable butadiene. Last year, Cobalt Technologies announced partnership agreements with two undisclosed Asian companies for the development of a biomass-to-butadiene solution, through Cobalt’s n-butanol production technology.
Chemical companies are not the only players in field of renewable butadiene, tire manufacturers looking to hedge against future feedstock scarcity are also investing in the field. For example, Michelin is collaborating with Axens and Tereos to convert biomass to butadiene.
The projected scarcity of butadiene for synthetic rubber production has created an incentive for tire and synthetic rubber productions to explore various alternative rubber production methods. Although renewable butadiene production receives most of the limelight, some companies are looking at other strategies, including exploring the use of natural rubber substitute (guayule or rice husk) and creating a newer version of synthetic rubber from bio-isoprene (client registration required).
In addition to the continued tightening of naphtha-derived butadiene supply, the demand growth for tires and polymers from emerging economies and the volatility of the natural rubber market will continue to drive efforts in renewable butadiene. At this stage, most of the leading developers in the field are already in developmental partnerships. To hedge against the projected butadiene scarcity, companies should secure supply agreements or collaborate with earlier-stage technology developers that have not yet secured exclusive partnerships.
Investment and growth in bio-based material and chemical capacity continues to increase globally. Aggregating 229 sites from 217 companies that are planned, operating, or have been shuttered between 2005 and 2017 paints an interesting picture, whether considered by feedstock, product category or the geography where scale-up is strongest. Categorizing the products – 133 chemicals and classes like succinic acid and polyols – into seven main product categories (e.g., intermediate chemicals, polymers, and specialty chemicals) and 22 subcategories shines the light on the highest potential areas for producers and potential adopters:
Bio-based intermediate chemicals (e.g, adipic acid and lactic acid) is the biggest singular growth driver in the coming years, growing from 2.0 million metric tons (MT) to 4.9 million MT in 2017, while growth in first-generation facilities stalls. Adding further volume to the overall bio-based space, today’s 1.1 million MT bio-derived polymer capacity will grow at an 18% CAGR through 2017 as companies like Avantium build new sites, and production of bio-oil and its derivatives is set to grow from 1.0 million MT today to 1.8 million MT in 2017. Finally, specialty chemicals (e.g., farnesene) are set to boom at a 46% CAGR on a relatively low existing base between now and 2017. In contrast, the nascent bio-based advanced material space, comprised of products like bee silk, continues to have a negligible capacity through 2017.
As the bio-based industry matured, the pendulum moved from fuels to chemicals and companies like Solazyme, Elevance, and Amyris pushed back plans for entering the fuel market and instead focused on available chemical markets. Now that these companies are reaching commercial production volumes and are looking to set up strong downstream offtake markets, strategies are shifting even further away from fuels. As companies look to generate revenue, expect to see continued movement into existing and high-value specialty markets. A key to this on-going growth will be a continuation of the partnering behaviors already exemplified by key players in the industry. Years of collaboration and partnership have resulted in the first wave of bio-producers reaching scale and putting products on the markets. Larger patterns and trends continue to evolve, and a variety of partnership models – some focusing on strong upstream relationships and other focusing on downstream offtake – are showing success. LanzaTech, Agilyx, and Renmatix are key companies with an upstream, feedstock focus, while Genomatica, Solazyme, Gevo, Elevance, and Segetis are working on downstream business development.
Assembling the partnerships for feedstock, process and product in the right geographies will define the long term winners in this space. The masses rushing towards natural gas feedstocks are only enhancing the opportunities for thought leaders and strategic thinkers in higher carbon bio-based materials and chemicals who can position to win now as well as long after the natural gas frenzy is over.
Source: Lux Research report “Cultivating Capacity for Bio-based Materials and Chemicals through 2017” — client registration required.
Although biofuels production increased 82% from 2000 to 2008, they still control a narrow niche of the overall market for transportation fuels, frustrating start-ups’ dreams of easy riches. Even so, biofuels created through new technologies like cellulosic fermentation are beginning to leave the realm of science and turn up the competitive heat.
Today’s cellulosic fermentation players, in general, aim to optimize the conversion of sugars into biofuel – either by improving traditional fermentation technologies that employ natural yeast or by applying advanced fermentation techniques using genetically-enhanced yeast, other microbes, or some combination of the two.
While technology is a differentiator, scale matters more right now. As with most emerging biofuel technology spaces, novel fermentation technologies haven’t been around long enough to prove or disprove viability. The industry knows what needs to happen: the production cost of cellulosic ethanol (propanol, butanol, or methanol) need to become cost-competitive with their petroleum counterparts. Right now, all of these companies are in a heated race to achieve that low cost, which can only happen at commercial scale.
Companies that achieve scale first, however, have the best chance at success. The two biggest contenders are Iogen – the most mature company of the lot – and Mascoma, which scores well on business execution and technical value thanks to its potentially cost-cutting “consolidated bioprocess” in which a single microbe breaks down cellulose and ferments the sugar to produce ethanol.
Qteros and Genomatica also show promise. Like Mascoma, Qteros is developing a consolidated bioprocess backed by high-profile partners. But its progress has been slow, and the lack of production beyond lab scale accounts for its low technical score. Similar issues face Genomatica, whose genetically modified microbes produce BDO, a chemical intermediate valued much more highly than ethanol. But it too scores low on technical value as it has yet to move production beyond lab scale. Despite Genomatica’s strong leadership, it lags in business execution due to a lack of commercial partnerships and low momentum, as its slow path to scale-up means it will likely require additional investment.