Scaling Up to Biobased Chemicals
It took a heavy dose of federal subsidies, equity, venture capital and private and public investment to scale up ethanol and biodiesel technologies capable of commercial production. The generation of robust biofuels industries led to a revision of the renewable fuel standard, RFS2, which the U.S. EPA implemented in July, and now, with a mandated consumption of 1.35 billion gallons of advanced biofuel in place for the year, a proliferation of biobased chemicals is expected follow.
Recognizing that biobased chemicals are a significant component within the overall biorefining movement in competition with the petrochemical sector, the U.S. DOE revised its original biorefinery grant program in 2009 when it included a biochemical pathway for biobased chemical production, in addition to biofuels, for qualification of funds. The DOE’s original biorefinery grant opportunities went to the production of biofuels. Grant qualification for fuels hinged on stringent ASTM specification requirements. The inclusion of biobased chemicals in the DOE’s most recent biorefinery grant program marks a pivotal time for the sector in its scale-up efforts for commercialization, according to Mark Warner, vice president of process industries for Seatte-based engineering firm Harris Group Inc.
“The more biofuels we make, the more it will put things out of balance unless biochemicals come along with it,” Warner tells Biorefining Magazine. “It does seem like, from an energy perspective, that the DOE and the government are seeing it more and more important that, as you make more biofuels, biobased chemical development must also grow so that the existing petroleum market doesn’t get out of balance. We’ve really started to emphasize and target biochemicals because we really think that’s going to be a strong emerging sector in the next three to five years.”
Nevertheless, biobased chemical developers will inevitably combat similar technological and economic scale-up challenges as they make inroads into the biorefining landscape. For biobased specialty chemical producer Blue Marble Biomaterials, many of the challenges associated with scaling up biology are inherently rooted in microbial biology, according to CEO Kelly Ogilvie. Having already demonstrated its technology at a 1 ton per day (tpd) pilot facility in Seattle, the company has scaled up to a 3 tpd plant in Carvallis, Mont. Using its proprietary Acid, Gas and Ammonia Targeted Extraction process technology, Blue Marble is capable of producing an array of biobased chemicals such as ethyl butyrate for the food and flavoring industries and propyl butyrate for the cosmetics and fragrances markets from an array of cellulosic feedstocks such as agricultural waste, spent brewery grains, microalgae, corn silage and more.
“We’re good at our biology and we’re good at our technology but, as a small company, we’re not necessarily good at scale, and that I think is the biggest challenge facing a lot of companies,” Ogilvie says. “Scale issues, as far as going from small to major reactions and to process that material and sell into the marketplace, are all challenges that have to be overcome.”
Many new biobased specialty chemical offerings, particularly batch operations, can be scaled up directly from bench-scale to a manufacturing plant by developing the process while concurrently performing lab testing with scale up in mind. Biochemical process technologies are often scaled up in stages from the lab to pilot-scale or semi-works scale to obtain engineering data for commercial plant design. A staged scale-up approach may not necessarily be the most practical for biobased chemicals, however, as they’re often characterized by multistep batch syntheses and relatively low volume even though speed to market and rapid ramp-up are essential for commercial success.
Alignment of Interests
Of course, a scale-up strategy would not be initiated or achieved if a significant amount of funds were not available for the purchase of larger equipment or working capital to continue R&D efforts. One way a biochemical developer can secure funding and accelerate its scale-up efforts is to form strategic partnerships with firms entrenched in established industries that employ similar biotechnological fermentation routes, have access to sugar or starch feedstocks, and can offer distribution services for end products.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-based SyntheZyme, which has been working off DARPA grants and with support from Polytechnic Institute of New York University, believes there’s enough fermentation capacity around the world already, according to Guy Penard, a consultant to SyntheZyme. The company employs a biocatalytic fermentation pathway that uses a genetically modified strain of Candida tropicalis that, when fed on plant-based fatty acids, is capable of producing large quantities of monomers called omega-hydroxyfatty acids. When polymerized, they form a polymeric bioplastic material that could be used as a viable substitute for petroleum-based polyethylene.
“We’ve talked to larger fermentation firms that have experience with this type of process,” Penard says. “There’s enough fermentation capacity available around the world to [support not building] your own plant. Why invest in building your own plant when a biochemical firm can integrate its unique processes with existing facilities that already employ biological processes?”
According to Ogilvie, tapping into expertise of established models, such as the beer and wine industries, has helped his company in scaling up.
“They’ve taken reactions that happen at the nanometer [level] and have gone to massive scale,” he says. “So what we’ve done early on is partner with mid-scale breweries and tried to tie in their institutional knowledge and expertise, and historical knowledge, on how to do this stuff.”
Blue Marble, which was one of a handful of early-stage biochem firms that managed to secure seed money and closed on a Series A round of financing in 2008, also formed a strategic partnership with global chemical distributor Sigma-Aldrich to help with quality assurance procedures and introduce its biobased products to market this year.
“It’s not like the boom days of 2006-‘07 where you could just walk up and get a loan from a bank,” Ogilvie says. “But, if you have a real project, real partners with off-takes or what looks like off-takes in the near future, banks are much more willing to get involved.”
Whether its employing a bolt-on strategy or planning a stand-alone production plant, Warner agrees that strategic partnerships help bring forth new biobased chemical technologies and their products to market.
“You’re seeing more of that corporate commitment than what it’s been the past few years,” Warner says. “What we worry about in the end is bankability. Is somebody going to loan money to this project? Having a partner certainly doesn’t hurt.”
In addition to forming strategic alliances for off-takes, access to feedstock or potential financial backing, selecting the right EPC firm, like Colorado-based Merrick & Co., can significantly aid in scale-up efforts. The company has a proven track record of guiding its advanced biofuel and biochemical clients, such as Range Fuels Inc. and OPX Biotechnologies, to commercialization. Aside from being a traditional EPC firm, Merrick offers business consulting services that help clients avoid costly surprises during scale-up efforts, according to technical specialist Bart Carpenter.
“We’re very adept at helping clients with the business planning portion of the project, such as decision and risk analysis,” Carpenter says. “We can also build out a risk-weighted pro forma to help guide not only their process technology, but also their process development or their R&D efforts to help them figure out what they need to focus on before they make it commercial-ready.”
Overcoming Technical Hurdles
Addressing technical issues associated with the scaling up of biochemical processes and figuring out ways to overcome these challenges is a daunting task for any developer. Common technical issues that are typically addressed before and during scale-up involve isolation and separation of desired product from water and other contaminants.
“Typically, because of the toxicity of the product to the microbe, you end up making a very dilute product,” Carpenter says. “You might have 3 to 4 percent product and the rest is water. You have to figure out a way to economically recover that without wasting profit on energy costs.”
While several methods exist and are employed to separate water from the desired product, such as distillation, membrane systems and chromatography, a biochemical producer can rely on conventional technology before improved recovery and separation equipment for biobased chemicals come to market.
“You can use distillation with brute force, but that’s not necessarily the most effective way to go forward in the future,” Ogilvie says. “We’ve been looking for technology solutions as we scale. We are constantly surveying the landscape for lateral or upstream technologies to integrate into our process to make us more efficient.”
According to Penard, an advantage to SyntheZyme’s process is that its pathway uses the chemical outside of the organism, which makes product separation easier. “We certainly do expect we’ll have scale-up issues, but we don’t believe them to be major ones that will keep us from building larger scale plants,” Penard says.
Another common technical challenge that biochemical developers must be mindful of is that the physical form, purity or performance of the product may change as their processes make the transition from the lab to pilot- or demonstration-scale. Since more biobased specialty chemicals are expected to enter into the food and cosmetic markets, a greater magnitude of quality is placed on those products, a requirement that biofuels don’t necessarily have to worry about as much, according to Ogilvie.
“Butanol, for example, could be between 80 and 90 percent pure whereas our chemicals have to be 99.8 or 99.7 pure,” he says. “Biochemicals have to specifically function a certain way. If you get a certain level of toxins in there, it might hurt people if they’re consuming them as food flavorings as opposed to a fuel blendstock that gets poured in the tank of a car. It’s a different level of scrutiny that I think will separate the different levels of sophistication and purity that you’re going to see in the marketplace for renewable chemicals.”
For biochemical firms that are considering or are in the middle of scale-up initiatives, directing resources and funding to refine one component at a time will yield greater results, according to Warner.
“Only prove what you have to prove,” he says. “Don’t overcomplicate things. If you can license other technology outside of the core technology of your own intellectual property, do it. Maybe you think your pretreatment or your recovery process is a little better, but if there are commercially available options, use them for now and only prove what you have to.”
Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine