Summary:

What most people don’t realize is that a chunk of the crude oil that goes into an oil refinery doesn’t end up anywhere near a car’s fuel tank. It ends up making chemicals.

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This article originally appeared in the cleantech section of GigaOM Pro, our premium subscription research service (subscription required).

When thinking about the rising price of oil, folks in cleantech tend to think in terms of transportation fuels and what can be done to replace them with renewable and clean sources of energy. And with good analysis from the likes of UCSD’s Tom Murphy showing that in 2004 oil production slowed and failed to increase much despite prices tripling, finding alternative fuels is key. But what most people don’t realize is that a chunk of the crude oil that goes into an oil refinery doesn’t end up anywhere near a car’s fuel tank. It ends up making chemicals.

A higher margin product

In 2011, the global market for petrochemicals was worth over $3 trillion, approximately the size of the entire U.S. government’s budget, and the feedstock for producing those chemicals is petroleum. About half of that market is commodity chemicals that are low margin, but the other half is higher margin specialty chemicals like polymers that comprise plastics or substrates for pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The biofuels industry is working on producing transportation fuels through a process whereby a carbon feedstock like woodchips or sawgrass is fed to microbes to produce oil. But most of the biofuels companies that IPO’ed last year have been crushed in the market, and Amyris recently decided to scale back its biofuels production in favor of, what else, but manufacturing the specialty (and higher margin) chemical squalene.

So as some biofuels companies try to pivot toward specialty chemicals, which are lower volume and smaller market but with better margins, it’s worth taking a look at the potential to use microbes to manufacture chemicals from a feedstock other than oil.

Finding the right bio-chemical

I recently caught up with Charles Eggert, the CEO of Boulder, CO based OPX Biotechnologies, a bio-chemical startup that has raised $65 million from a number of VCs including energy focused Altira Group and cleantech friendly Mohr Davidow. OPX Bio is targeting the $10 billion global market for petro-acrylic, an ingredient in everything from paint to diapers, by generating the first biologically produced acrylic, so called “bio-acrylic.”

Eggert is unsurprisingly bullish on the bio-chemical market. He points out that while less of the oil going into a refinery comes out a petrochemical than comes out a fuel, petrochemicals have much greater value in the market. Specialty chemicals have disproportionate margins and value, which is what makes them attractive. He also takes some solace in the fact that the massive scaling issues that have hampered biofuels are somewhat less of an issue for lower volume specialty chemicals and that many common chemicals from pharmaceuticals to amino acids are already produced biologically.

On the cleantech end, biochemicals are renewable, presuming you can access a widely available feedstock whose growth doesn’t harm the environment and doesn’t compete with the food supply as corn based ethanol does. But more importantly the process of using microbes to produce biochemicals doesn’t require heat and pressure, which are both needed in petrochemical processing. The bacteria that OPX uses operates near room temperature.

Eggert says that producing bio-acrylic results in 75 percent less greenhouse gas emissions versus producing petro-acrylic. Additionally, large companies like Procter and Gamble have ambitious pledges, like targeting the replacement of 25 percent of all petroleum based materials with renewable materials by 2020. P&G is a significant buyer and seller of specialty chemicals for everything from detergents to cosmetics, and the option to buy greener bio based chemicals could be an attractive option.

For a feedstock, OPX is currently using sugar, either from corn or Brazilian sugar cane. But ultimately the industry will need a non-food based sugar, often referred to as cellulosic sugar, which is derived from biomass materials like switch grass or energy cane. Multiple companies, from BP to DuPont, are working on building large scale plants that can derive sugar from biomass sources.

Eggert told me that at commercial scale, making bio-acrylic is cost competitive with petro-acrylic. OPX will need to build a commercial scale plant and prove that it can get the same yield it’s produced at smaller scale, the critical scaling hurdle that every biochemical or biofuel company faces. It also has a joint development agreement with Dow Chemical, the largest U.S. producer of petroleum based acrylic, which Eggert reports is seeing demand from its customers for renewable biochemicals.

The building of a final production plant can often run a couple of hundred million dollars. “It’s not cheap,” says Eggert. “Which is why you need to make sure your process, your microbe, your engineering design are as efficient as they can possibly be.” And for the benefit of the biochemicals industry, let’s hope that the scaling goes faster and more smoothly than it’s gone for biofuels.

Images courtesy of OPX Biotechnologies and Amyris.

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By Adam Lesser

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