Archive for green

Jul
01

Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Amyris Biotechnologies logoIn my ongoing work on analyzing the intellectual property landscape in biofuels, one of the most impressive companies I’ve run across is Amyris, a renewable products company whose clever use of synthetic biology goes far beyond biofuels. Amyris was founded by Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, and Jack D. Newman who met at Berkeley and founded Amyris in 2003, headquartered in Emeryville, California. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they first developed their technology under a non-profit initiative to provide a reliable and affordable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. It was viewed as a long-shot, but they found success that paved the way for the growth of the company into other areas. They are now developing new microbial strains that can produce other useful molecules from renewable feedstocks. This industrial synthetic biology platform is providing alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. he extremely useful molecule farnesene is an important part of their business. It provides a compound that can be used to produce flavors, perfumes, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel, and other products.

This week Amyris created a stir by announcing a record number of deals and partnerships for a single week (a record among bioenergy companies, according to Biofuels Digest). These partnerships include P&G, Total, Soliance, Cosan, M&G Finanziaria, and Shell:

Amyris has taken it up a notch with a series of stunners surrounding its synthetic farsenene, which it has named Biofene – the first product that Amyris is seeking to produce at commercial scale.

Beyond its success this week with Biofene announcements, which are the basis for the P&G, M&G and Soliance partnerships — there are the broader arrangements with Cosan to develop a platform in renewable chemicals, and the equity agreement with Total that will provide needed capital as well as a broader platform for Amyris’s expansion into hydrocarbon fuels.

The mysterious agreement with Shell, regarding diesel, is one to watch. The decidedly vague disclosure was buried in Amyris’ amended S-1A registration statement, but not otherwise mentioned in a flurry of press releases from the company as it promotes its expansion in this pre-IPO environment. Shell Western Trading & Supply is one of 17 Shell trading companies that buy and sell to customers within and outside of Shell.

This news shows an interesting example of companies forming partnerships with an innovative start-up with great technology and apparently highly valuable IP. According to my Patbase search, Amyris has 21 patent families, quite a large number for such a young company. They clearly have been active and aggressive in pursuing patent protection, and those patents are critical for the meaningful partnerships they are now forming. It’s a great unfolding story of open innovation and technology transfer.

The story extends beyond the US. They have operations in Brazil, for example, which is one of the world’s hotbeds for bioenergy, bioproducts, and collaborative innovation.

Further information comes from today’s article, “Amyris: farnesene and the pursuit of value, valuations, validation and vroom,” also from Biofuels Digest.

Spill Cam View

Spill Cam View

While many US citizens are tempted to make political points from the problems we’re facing in the Gulf, there are some basic organizational issues that transcend political parties and get at one of the basic problems in responding to unexpected changes. The problem is bureaucracy and the myriad of personal and departmental incentives that are naturally NOT aligned with the needs of the larger organization (in this case, the nation). The fundamental problem with bureaucracy in both large companies and governments is that there are many disincentives for individuals and groups to do what is right for the larger organization. Each bureaucrat fears future punishment if standard rules and procedures are not followed. If a Coast Guard officer backs down from meticulous safety requirements to be imposed on other vessel and, say, allows an oil cleanup rig to go into service without adequate fire extinguishers, a career might be ruined if fire breaks on that vessel. There are no rewards for being flexible and terrible risks for backing down from the letter of the law, or rather, from the millions of letters in the thousands of pages of rules, procedures, and protocols.

The problem in large organizations, and the US federal government is pretty much the world’s largest, is that numerous entities have their own turf and their own advancement in mind, and without special efforts being taken will naturally work in ways that cause conflict and delay. Leaders must carefully work to align these interests and incentives toward organizational objectives, but this can be almost impossible when an organization gets out of control. Adding a new committee or bureaucracy in addition to everything else will rarely be the most effective path forward. Meanwhile, those who may have the answer and want to bring their expertise to the table find themselves discouraged, worn down, ignored, and ultimately punished for their passion to innovate and help. Welcome to organizational innovation fatigue, and welcome to the Gulf Coast disaster.

Several voices have discussed the need for innovation in dealing with the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf Coast. There are so many intriguing opportunities for technology–oil absorbent materials, new chemistries for dispersing or attacking the oil, controlled burnoffs, skimming and oil collection systems, barrier technologies to keep the oil away, materials that coagulate oil, and a host of proposed technical solutions for addressing the root cause and stopping the leak. Many of the proposals should be considered and tried. This is not the time for bureaucracy. This is not the time for the government to be shutting down efforts with its bureaucracy. If the Coast Guard is worried about inadequate fire extinguishers, round up a batch and take them over to the relief effort to help, not hinder the State of Louisiana as it tries to protect itself. But what the Coast Guard did in this case is akin to what happens thousands of times each day in companies and government around the world, contributing to the innovation fatigue that stymies much needed efforts at innovation and progress.

The V16 Separator of Ocean Therapy Solutions

The V16 Separator of Ocean Therapy Solutions

There are some bright spots of innovation amidst all this mess. Kevin Costner of Hollywood fame has been developing a company with patented technologies for cleaning oil-contaminated water. Ocean Therapy Solutions (http://ots.org) represents a case of successful technology transfer that began in the US Dept. of Energy and some national labs. The technology has now emerged as clever centrifugal separators that split a contaminated stream into highly separated water and oil-rich streams. Portable units mounted on boats can go into contaminated waters and process large quantities of ocean water, recovering oil and returning much cleaner water to the ocean. Their website includes a couple of interesting videos, including one of Kevin testifying before Congress. The system has received relatively little interest for the past decade and the factory has been dormant, but now awareness is rapidly increasing and BP is deploying some of these units for use in the Gulf. A single unit can process 200 gallons per minute or more.

Kudos to Kevin and his team! He certainly has an advantage with his name recognition and extensive networks–without that, he may have been viewed as just another voice in the wind claiming to have something. There are others with technologies and potential solutions. May they also find their way to make a difference. May all the innovation fatigue factors remain far from Kevin Costner and all others seeking to bring something new to help us fix the Gulf Coast disaster.

Apr
22

Smartphones and Agriculture

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One of the interesting trends in emerging nations is the rapid spread of mobile phones without first moving to landlines. Millions of people who don’t have landlines and may not have the infrastructure for them are able to benefit from cell phones. As cell phones increasingly become smart, offering a variety of apps and services, their smartphones can change the way people work and live. That includes the way they farm, including they way they apply pesticides, apply water, manage the soil, and harvest crops. Look to agriculture and the related fields of water and soil management for added value in coming years.

Lindsay Corporation (no relation, unfortunately, though I did profit as an investor in the past–NYSE:LNN) recently announced a new cell phone application to help farmers track and control their automated irrigation systems such as the Zimmatic® system. Here’s an excerpt:

Lindsay Corporation, maker of Zimmatic® irrigation systems, announces the introduction of FieldNET Mobile—pivot control for smartphones. The new feature allows growers to fully control and monitor their irrigation pivots anywhere through the convenience of smartphones.

“FieldNET Mobile provides a labor-saving innovation with the convenience of web-enabled phones,” says Reece Andrews, GrowSmart™ product manager at Lindsay. “With full control and monitoring from anywhere, growers are more efficient with their time and always know the status of their irrigation systems.”

FieldNET Mobile’s graphical interface supports most industry-leading smartphones, including the iPhone®, Droid® and BlackBerry®, according to Andrews.

FieldNET is an award-winning web-based irrigation management system. With the addition of FieldNET Mobile, growers can view the current status of all their pivots in one list, receive system alerts, arrange pivots by predefined groups, view water usage reports and receive a history of pivot runtimes.

Innovators are already considering many other smartphone-enabled opportunities for improving the way we farm and manage water around the world. It’s too early to discuss some details, but I look forward to seeing what we can do to further improve the quality of life through better agriculture practices enabled by the power of smartphones. Stay tuned!

What do you see as future applications of smartphones in agriculture?

Related reading:

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Jul
24

Green Innovation: Unexpected Gems

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As the world becomes more “green conscious,” green innovation will increasingly be an area where the best of human creativity can surprise and delight us. One of my favorite case studies in Conquering Innovation Fatigue is that of Orion Energy Systems (NASDAQ: OESX), where CEO Neal Verfuerth’s personal journey of innovation has resulted in a large company that can dramatically cut the power bills of large and small companies with massively innovative lighting systems and a retrofitting approach that recycles everything. Green capitalism at its best!

Green innovation extends to many other areas. One intriguing example from the Netherlands is GreenGraffiti®, a sustainable advertising and communication method that involves simply power washing a sidewalk or other dirty surface using a template that results in a “clean green” message standing out from the normal untreated background. Better than paint, posters, neon, or billboards, this form of communication doesn’t require removal or cleanup and doesn’t harm the environment unless you want to nit-pick about the small amount of water and electricity used to create the message, and the template itself).

One of the clients of Innovationedge has a remarkable green innovation for the paper industry. The Fractionating Saveall™ by a Wisconsin inventor is a remarkable device that helps papermakers, especially tissue makers, recover good fibers from waste streams and improve the quality of the water (“whitewater”) that is recycled in the paper machine. His clever device relies on the water flow itself to drive the rotating flexible conical screen that does the work, using no electricity or other additional power.

Fractionating Saveall in Use at a Tissue Mill

Fractionating Saveall in Use at a Tissue Mill

The conical fabric screen rotates under the action of jets of water carrying fibers and “junk” (ash and “fines” – materials that are often undesirable at high concentations that can build up in a paper machine). It gathers desirable long fibers inside the screen, which roll down to a central collection area where they are sent back to the paper machine, while the water high in ash and fines but low in fiber goes outside the screen, where it can then be purified or partly sewered without losing good fiber.

The flexing of the fabric screen is what gives this process so many advantages over past approaches. A metal screen can quickly plug up. But the fabric screen has a self-cleaning action due to the continual flexing back and forth as it rotates and passes under water jets that momentarily push it outward. This flexing keeps fibers from locking into place onto the screen. High efficiency, low maintenance, easy installation – really brilliant. We have a unit in Appleton that can be seen upon request, and much more info is available upon request. Green, clean, and lean – perfect for a paper machine.

Naturally, a tool like this can find applications in other fields as well. Separation of solids from water is important in the food processing industry, in mining, in biomass conversion, in water purification, in waste treatment, and in many other areas. The mesh of the screen, flow rates, system diameter, and post-processing systems can all be adapted to meet the separation objectives needed. I some cases, the presence of added surfactants, defoamers, or other agents may be helpful in optimizing performance. Contact us with your application and let’s discuss how one or more of these units could be applied to meet your needs.

The story of this innovation is one that fits many of the lessons of Conquering Innovation Fatigue. We hope to share it in the near future, after this device becomes more fully known and appreciated by the industry.

For more information, see the Executive Summary for the Fractionating Saveall (PDF file).

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InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.