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Current status of bio-based motor oils and base oils

In April, Redwood Innovation Partners Bhima Vijaydren wrote a review on the current status of bio-based motor oils and base oils for the journal Industrial Biotechnology. In it, Bhima explains how biobased lubricants show promise in augmenting the current petroleum-based supply of lubricating materials, as well as replacing it in many cases.

One study estimates that 50% of all lubricants sold globally end up in the environment via total loss application (such as chain saw oils, two stroke engines), spillage, and volatility. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that consumers dump more than 4 million barrels of oil every year when they dispose of used motor oil, an amount similar in magnitude to the spillage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Biobased lubricants’ performance exceeds that of petro-derived lubricants in key measures. Some of the advantages of biobased base oils are higher inherent biodegradation rate (tested by ASTM D-5864), low toxicity to aquatic organisms, and very low level of bioaccumulation. The carbon footprint of biobased lubricants is also lower than petro-based incumbents. Estolide-based base oils have been estimated to create about 80% lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with petroleum-based poly alpha olefin (PAO) base oils, a product of similar function and use. Estolides are derivatives of fatty acids in which the tail of one fatty acid is bound covalently to the middle of another fatty acid hydrocarbon chain. Estolides are created by chemically connecting different unsaturated fatty acids.

Advances in conversion technology, development of formulations on par in performance with their petroleum-based counterparts, reliable supply chain and feedstock options, major corporate investment in production scale manufacturing facilities, cost parity, and the ability to meet USDA BioPreferred® certification all indicate that biobased motor oils are ready for large-scale commercial deployment.

A few companies demonstrate leadership in bringing specific products to market. Elevance uses patented olefin metathesis chemistry to create building block molecules from vegetable oils, which in turn undergo further reactions to ‘‘create novel molecular structure with controlled weight, branching, and architecture‘‘ of value in lubricant applications. Elevance is commercially producing these chemicals at its recently opened plant in Gresik, Indonesia. Other companies commercializing lubricants from biomass feedstocks include BioSynthetic Technologies and Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing.

It’s recognized that vegetable oils have several inherent advantages over petroleum-based ones, and many of the biobased lubricant technologies use vegetable oils as primary feedstocks. Monsanto (St. Louis, MO), through its Vistive Gold soybeans, and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred (Johnston, IA) subsidiary, through its Plenish high oleic soybean, have made available high oleic oils, a very useful building block for developing high performance vegetable oil-based base oils.

3D Printing: Opportunities, Challenges, Trends, and Forecasts

3D printing follows in the wake of desktop laser printers, printed electronics, and the moveable type printing press itself as the latest of innovations to capture creators’ imaginations and initiate a transformation of the landscape of fabrication. Parts and pieces of designed objects can be produced on demand, anywhere and at any time. To compare the impact of 3D printing to previous printing technologies is completely appropriate, as already the potential of applications of 3D printing is clearly profound.

Opportunities for business are varied, and still emerging. There are the manufacture of raw materials (analogous to laser printer ink), the 3D-printing equipment, subparts and assemblies, IP and enabling technologies for a range of kinds of printers. There are also opportunities in adding functionality to existing structural elements, including functioning electronics, moving mechanical parts, and hybrids of 3D-printed and non-3D-printed components. With decentralized fabrication technologies will also come needs to reclaim waste materials, equipment service and repair, and entirely new business models.

Trends in 3D-printing and applications point to business opportunities in platform innovations, systems integration, additive manufacturing, materials development to enable the use of varied materials with less specialized equipment, and combining electrical, mechanical, and other parts into 3D-printed parts. There are even 3D printers that are designed and marketed to make objects based on edible materials.

Hype around 3D printing has flowed over into developments and announcements in 3D-printed organs and medical devices, “printed” chemicals and pharmaceuticals, 3D-printing pens, and 3D-printed biocompatible materials.

To make objects from a 3D printer, you need object files, and the Thingiverse website hosts the largest repository of free 3D printing CAD designs.

Commercial activities, today, include Home Depot’s announcement that it will sell 3D printers. That comes after Staples and UPS have tested in-store demonstrations of 3D printing services.

Additive manufacturing is not without its challenges.  Some risks of 3D printers have already emerged, for instance, the printing of guns and military equipment has been demonstrated. With the space receiving so much interest and development happening so quickly, it is unclear how regulators and lawmakers will respond.

Two key enabling technology for 3D printing are the development of new and improved functional coatings and high durability printing nozzles. Firms which have extensive backgrounds in new materials design / synthesis and developing new applications for advanced materials are ideally positioned to address these challenges.

Philanthropists, billionaires, and foundations join governments to fund science

Philanthropists, billionaires, and foundations have joined governments to become major funders of scientific research. The practice has become so important, the phrase “scientific philanthropy” has been coined to describes the practice, (omit this portion in parantheses – more critically important to make progress on the world’s most pressing challenges). While governments pursue national priorities, today’s philanthropic donors seek to address the world’s problems, as well as support personal interests and priorities.

Recent articles, including one in the New York Times, detail how entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Eric Schmidt of Google, as well as many other billionaires, have contributed sums ranging in the tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars. Paul Allen established the Allen Institute for Brain Science with a donation of $500 million. This dwarfs the Obama Administration’s recent $100 million initiative for mapping the brain. Indeed,  the government campaign was shaped by some of the same philanthropies’ scientists.  Scientific philanthropists have also developed the needed project selection and management infrastructure and the innovation networks needed to maximize the impact of their donations.

With a quickly-evolving landscape of challenges and threats to peace and prosperity around the world, government debt hamstringing nations from acting, and successful entrepreneurs turning their attention to the legacies they will establish, scientific philanthropy has a critical role to play, and it comes at a time that it is much needed. Areas of research and global challenges being addressed by scientific philanthropy are many, including: marine research; ovarian cancer, melanoma, and other cancers; brain science, astronomy, basic research in particular physics, archaeology, space travel, and global health including tuberculosis, vaccines, and the eradication of malaria and polio.

It is interesting to consider the parallels with the Renaissance, when wealthy patrons also heavily funded the arts, mathematics and science. Many of those Renaissance court scientists, including Galileo, had renounced the orthodoxy of University life.  It is not clear to us if the current growth in ’scientific philanthropy’ is driven by the rapid creation of vast IT based fortunes  or  the eternal concern with government funding priorities or both.  Seventy years ago there were virtually no federal funds for scientific research and that changed with Vannevar Bush’s post world war II efforts to create the National Science Foundation.  Perhaps that system of federally-funded research is giving way to more decentralized, ad-hoc process, driven by affinity investors.  Let us know what you think!

John Snow and Big Data; Now, NASA and Really Big Data

In 1854 John Snow was living in a London that was literally awash in sewage. Cholera epidemics, what we now know to be caused by a specific pathogen in drinking water, were both routine and catastrophic, so common in that time that the population growth of the city had flattened out, and the likelihood of an infant reaching the age of three was less than one in five.

In spite of this terrible scourge, Londoners were helpless to stop it. The germ theory was not yet established, and physicians continued to consider “miasmas,” or toxic vapors, as the source of cholera. While Snow was skeptical of the miasma theory, his approach to the 1854 epidemic, was nothing short of brilliant; it was early “big-data” science. Without benefit of a real working hypothesis Snow began to map the geographic locations of deaths from cholera, and discovered a large cluster of deaths at a certain part on Broad St, in the St. James Parish region of London. In collaboration with a local physician and clergyman, the source of the outbreak was tracked to a water source (the famous Broad Street pump), which in turn resulted from cross contamination by a nearby cell pool. That cell pool was used by the family of no less than the index case of the cholera outbreak. Snow and colleagues, had, with a map of London and some colored pins, found the source of the cholera outbreak, and its’ mechanism of disease, without benefit of the first principle of what we now know to be microbiology.

One of the great handicaps of reading history is that we don’t fully understand that people living through the historical event really don’t know how the story ends. It took a good while for the scientific community to put it all together, but they did. Snow went on to “quantify” the anesthetics used in that time (ether and chloroform) in ways that made their administration far safer and more effective.

This summer NASA announced a public-private Crowdfunding, part of a larger
Asteroid Grand Challenge,” “to detect, map, and classify objects in space that may be an impact risk for our planet.”

This is in the face of the fact that there’s no viable means, currently available, to change the trajectory of a large space object. There are really two problems here, of course: first find the object, a non-trivial objective in large-data parsing, and then figure out how to exploit it. But that’s not stopped people from Crowdfunding an asteroid mining project: classic Yankee entrepreneurialism, what doesn’t kill you might make you rich.

The whole thing has a bit of John Snow about it.

What, at the core, is interesting about big data is that it often sidesteps the hypothesis stage, and sometimes even the end-game. It’s not trivial science. Nobody working in meteorology, astronomy, or bioinformatics sniffs at the concept of Big Data. But many casual readers often confuse “Big Data” with data-intensive computation. Big Data can be computationally intense, but it is more than that. It is an attempt to find the solution without really having a hypothesis or working model. And, that’s as revolutionary as John Snow taking the handle off the Broad St Pump.

For a good primer on “Big Data” Science, I recommend: “The Fourth Paradigm,” by Hey and Transley.

Or for the skeptics, try a nice piece in the New Yorker by Gary Marcus, “Steamrolled by Big Data.”

Either way, it’ll be fun to see how it turns out.

—Rob Carnes

At BIO meeting, best practices on commercializing bioproducts from oilseed crops highlighted with soy oil examples

Conventional oil seed crops and the crops in the spotlight recently like camelina, jatropha, castor, coconut, and jojoba all have advantages and disadvantages that are critical to understand when developing new bio-enabled business plans. There are also multitudes of oil-crop species known to the academic literature with little, if any, work performed to bring these species into commercial relevance. That’s changing with species like crambe known for its lubricant properties, Lesquerella fendleri (a mustard producing so-called bladderpod oil), and Bernardia Pulchela (contains epoxy oil). Contact Redwood Innovation Partners to start the conversation on how to bring bio-based technology to work for your business growth objectives.

Recently, Bhima Vijayendran of Redwood Innovation Partners attended the 8th BIO Pacific Rim Summit conference held in San Diego, California, on December 11, 2013, and delivered an invited talk landscaping current technology and market potential of plant oil feedstocks  and their ability to compete with fossil based chemical products. He also outlined best practices in bioproduct commercialization by looking at a case study of Battelle’s several  R&D 100 Award winners,-soy-based platform including plasticizer, toner, polymers, polyols, and powder coatings, developed in cooperation between Batelle and the Ohio Soybean Council.  

Bhima highlighted the factors needed for bio-cased product commercialization success, in order of importance.

  • First and foremost , the economics must work.
  • Second, performance must meet or exceed market expectations, often a petro-derived incumbent product.
  • Thirdly, environmental considerations like sustainability metrics (life cycle analysis and carbon footprint) and health performance (no negative impact on human or life in the environment, no toxic chemicals used in production) must be better than existing solutions.

Bhima specified the value propositions in the soy-based plasticizers and noted that technologies based on one soy-based platform have yielded commercial value for companies including Advanced  Image Resources, PolyOne, Emery Oleochemicals, Momentive, Nexoleum,  and Biobent Polymers.

Bio-oils only amounted to about 150 million tonne market, compared to 380 million tonne petrochemical market for the chemical industry. Palm, soybean, rapeseed (canola), and sunflower oils make up 80% of the oilseed crops supplying mostly food markets, with about a third going to oleochemical conversion processes. Common applications include feed, soaps, detergents, and surfactants, lubricants, methyl esters, biodiesel and renewable diesel, drying oils, inks, and hydraulic oils. Consideration of the chemistry of individual plant oils reveal that some are better than others for specific functionality and end use.

As a platform, bio-oils are amenable to a diverse  set of conversion processes such as epoxidation, hydrogenation, hydroxylation, conjugation, cleavage, oxidation, and metathesis; these are all well-known and mature technologies that can be used to create novel bioproducts, many with existing and new markets.

All of the oilseed crop bio-oils and conversion technologies have their technical advantages and disadvantages with varying degrees of promise for commercial opportunities. Redwood Innovation Partners uses these insights in surveying which technologies make sense for clients to achieve business growth objectives and realize actual products that connect technology push with market pull.