Archive for sustainability

During the CoDev 2011 conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was impressed with a speech given by a local CEO, John (“Jay”) Rogers of Local Motors in Chandler, Arizona. This small company designs exciting new vehicles using design contests that are open to the public. Their rapidly growing community (12,000 participants so far) contributes designs and feedback to help in the selection of potentially successful concepts that Local Motors will then build locally in a microfactory, with final customization of the appearance being achieved with an environmentally friendly and durable vinyl wrap that eliminates the need for paint and gives the owner freedom to have a unique look. The final assembly is done with hands-on help from the new owner, who becomes intimately familiar with the vehicle and with its maintenance.

I was impressed enough with what I heard that I changed my evening plans to drive down to Chandler and attend an open house at Local Motors hosted by Jay himself. He allowed photography, so below you can see some views of Jay speaking and some shots of his vehicles in various stages of construction. The Rally Fighter that I am standing by sells for $59,000. It’s an incredible rugged, safe, and fun car that is legal on the road but a load of fun off road as well. It’s able to do very nice jumps.

These cars weigh much less than other cars their size, offering a huge bonus in mileage. Great engineering and innovation at many levels makes this possible.

The microfactory concept involves assembly of a small number of vehicles at a time in sustainable, efficient processes.

Jay Rogers demonstrates a $300 crimping tool

Jay Rogers demonstrates a $300 crimping tool

Jay shows the wire harness for the Local Motors Rally Fighter

Jay shows the wire harness for the Local Motors Rally Fighter

Jeff Lindsay in front of an early Rally Fighter from Local Motors

Jeff Lindsay in front of an early Rally Fighter from Local Motors

Inside a Rally Fighter

Inside a Rally Fighter

Initial frame, before welding

Initial frame, before welding

A portion of the body, before the custom vinyl wrap is added.

A portion of the body, before the custom vinyl wrap is added.

The frame. Remarkably strong, protective, and light.

The frame. Remarkably strong, protective, and light.

A portion of the frame.

A portion of the frame.

Nice shocks. This baby can jump.

This baby can jump.

Coming together....

Coming together....

A sweet car: the Rally Fighter by Local Motors

A sweet car: the Rally Fighter by Local Motors. This was one of the first vehicles produced.

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.

May
08

Innovation and Sustainability: Lessons from the Paper Industry at PaperCon 2010

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The international conference on the paper industry, PaperCon 2010, was held April 2-5 in Atlanta, Georgia, where nearly 1300 attendees gathered to learn the latest developments in areas such as papermaking, coating, and broader issues such as innovation, leadership, and sustainability. The “broader issues” are handled in the 1/3 of the program managed by PIMA, the Paper Industry Management Association, and I had the privilege of being the PIMA Programming Chair for 2010, working with a terrific team of people to bring in a series of great speakers. TAPPI.org shows details of the PIMA track.

I was especially interested in our Carbon Management track, where we had a lineup of experts giving us insights into trends and challenges the industry will face. These speakers included Marilyn Brown, the Nobel laureate from Georgia Tech; Don Carli of The Institute for Sustainable Communication; Don Brown of Agenda 2020, Ben Thorp, a former industry executive widely recognized for his expertise in biofuels and energy issues; George Weyerhaeuser Jr., former Weyerhaeuser executive and Senior Fellow, World Business Council for Sustainable Development; and Tom Rosser, Director General of the Policy, Economics and Industry Branch of the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada.

From these speakers, I learned that issues of climate change and environmental responsibility are far more complex than one would ever imagine from listening to popular pundits in the media. Don Carli, who recently made quite a splash in the media with his essay, “Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?,” explained that many groups making environmental claims of “saving trees” by using digital technologies such as electronic bill pay, online content, or email versus paper have failed to provide any plausible basis for their claims. In fact, the use of digital media currently promote deforestation of old growth forests in the form of West Virginia mountain tops that are leveled during the mountaintop coal mining that provides much of the coal used in producing much of our electricity (for an intro to the horrors of mountaintop coal mining, see ILoveMountains.org). But Carli points our that there are huge opportunities for innovation in this area, with the potential to improve the electrical efficiency of digital media and data center by an order or magnitude or more. In my opinion, this must become a priority for innovation in sustainability, not shutting down sustainable, managed plantations of trees which are actively replanted and remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere without blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the remains into once-pristine streams.

I also learned that green innovations in energy can sometimes result in valuable energy sources being used poorly. Ben Thorp, for example, explained that a standalone turbine using biomass to produce electricity might have an overall energy efficiency of only 18-20%, but if that same turbine is integrated with, say, a papermill to allow waste heat to be more effectively used and to gain other benefits, the overall efficiency can reach 70%. A reasonable approach to sustainability must include using our energy resources efficiently. Simply assuming that biofuels or power from biomass is inherently desirable is unjustified if much of the potential is being wasted.

Meanwhile, some environmental activists are beginning to see the wisdom of wood as a sustainable, replenishable material that takes carbon out of the atmosphere (whether that’s truly desirable or not is still an issue of controversy). The “Je Touch du Bois” (“I touch wood” in French, literally, but this is also similar to English’s “knock on wood” saying expressing a wish for good luck) campaign in Canada led by a former Greenpeace activist is evidence of that. Watch for this perspective to grow.

As with innovation in general, it’s difficult to get the right answer even when one does their homework. Finding breakthroughs that solve real problems and become adopted in society for positive change requires iteration on several fronts: iteration in the technology, in the business model, and in the message and how it is shared. One rarely gets it right the first time, and the winners are those who have something left to keep moving forward as they change and respond to the brutal realities of the marketplace and of science, which is often tentative due to limited human understanding.

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