3 Companies Take Their Own Road Toward Biobased Chemicals, Materials

More than 50 industry leaders from both chemical and biotechnology sectors and top researchers from Georgia Tech came together recently to take part in “Emerging Pathways: Exploring Frontiers in Biobased Chemicals and Materials,” a workshop designed to explore current and future trends in biobased products.

The workshop was organized and sponsored by the Renewable Bioproducts Institute as a way to connect the private sector and government researchers with the advances in the biobased chemical and materials arena at Georgia Tech.

As global population grows, bio-derived chemicals and materials are seen as solutions to the many societal and environmental challenges. Representatives from three companies investing in new technologies to meet this need shared their insights into opportunities and challenges in their respective fields.

In addition to the reports from companies operating in this sector, Georgia Tech’s Lignin Group, composed of RBI affiliated faculty and students, discussed its blueprint for research projects within the lignin concentration and more than 20 students from Georgia Tech and Clemson University presented posters to close out the workshop.

Alternative jet fuels

Curt Studebaker said his company, LanzaTech, a Chicago-based startup company that develops fuels and chemicals from waste gases, is finding big opportunities within the aviation industry.

The projected growth of CO2 emissions is 7.8 billion tons or 1,800 metric tons per year. LanzaTech is looking toward Cap 2020 where these would be capped at 700 metric tons. “With airplanes, one way is to improve wait times on runways by looking at ways to get them in and out without using the engines, for instance,” said Studebaker, a global operations technical advisor with the company.

But LanzaTech has also developed a jet fuel that, when combined with regular jet fuel, reduces emissions by 50 percent. This can be measured by contrails, the trail left behind airplanes at high altitudes. The more efficient the fuel, the less contrails will be visible, he said. “With more efficient fuels there are less contaminants in the exhaust and less sites for water vapor in the air to condense and form the white streaks we know as contrails. The test flight was Oct. 2 from Miami to London.

Commercialization, however, is a long road. “We started developing this particular fuel two years ago,” he said. “We are now designing the pre-commercialization plant to produce this fuel. The Department of Energy has approved the technology and the airlines have shown great interest. We do have challenges, such as the ability to keep the process sustainable on a commercial scale and finding abundant, low-cost feedstock that does not compete with the agricultural sector, like corn.”

The search for new chemistry ideas

Renewable and widely available raw materials are being chemically modified to create new biobased products and in turn are used in a wide variety of consumer products that enhance the quality of our lives, according to Jos De Wit, senior technical associate at Eastman Chemical Company.

Cellulose esters, biobased polymers containing up to 60 percent cellulose, can be used as plastics is applications such as tooth brushes, eyeglass frames, screwdriver handles, adhesive tapes and safety glasses. They are also used as fibers for filtration for such things as water purification, or as yarn to be used in beautiful fabrics, de Wit said.

A very different application involves their use as additives at 1 to 5 percent levels in coatings, paints and inks, where they provide rheological properties that allow paints to flow defect free and reduce dry times.  Several cellulose esters are on the national formulary list allowing use in pharmaceutical applications such as enteric coatings. 

“Here the coating controls the release of the active ingredients based on time or pH such that the medication reaches the target area such as the large intestine,” he said.

The advancement of algae in the biofuel arena and more

Algenol Biotech works vigorously to make the conversion of algae to useful products an economically viable one, according to Ron Chance, the company’s executive vice president of engineering.

“We are using this process to make new products in the areas of food ingredients, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, industrials and fuels. We are also seeing advancements in plastic film technology for our photobioreactors, which has been approved as food contact material.”

The company’s original focus was solely on ethanol production with genetically modified algae. Recent advancements are changing that.

“We are now producing algae solely to convert into biocrude with funding from the Department of Energy,” Chance said.  “Algenol can also use the oil fraction extracted in its protein production process as biodiesel.  Our organisms are non-toxic and non-invasive and have been proven to have no characteristics associated with plant pests.”

With their fuel processes, Algenol believes its fuel products can lower the carbon footprint of this by 70 to 80 percent compared to fossil-derived fuels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has certified the ethanol process at 69 percent and approved Alegnol’s fuel pathway.