Pathways to novel chemicals

In This Section

February 2014

Many companies in the green chemicals space have responded to the unpredictable price, and sometimes availability, of petroleum by making drop-in replacements (drop-ins). Drop-ins are biobased versions of existing petrochemicals that are chemically equivalent and offer all the functionality and benefits of those products. This equivalence allows them to be substituted with minimal switching costs and without disruptions to delivery. Biobased paraxylene, ethylene, polyethylene, and butanediol are just a few of the drop-ins being pursued by startups and large chemical companies alike.

But, as the industry matures, a handful of companies are establishing alternative pathways to biobased chemicals having structures that are entirely new—or that have not yet been applied to commercial markets. Such molecules have enhanced or additional functionality that allows customers to lower their costs, differentiate their products, and/or create entirely new products of their own. Here, we have highlighted six pathways to novel chemicals and one path to high-value drop-ins. View a list of additional companies involved in novel pathways.

Glucaric acid and derivatives

Company: Rivertop Renewables

Feedstock: glucose

Synthetic process: catalytic oxidation

Potential applications: detergent builders, chelating agents, corrosion inhibitors

Key targeted market segment(s): consumer and industrial and institutional (I&I) detergents; multiple industrial markets

Contact: John Monks, vice president of business development,

Key aspects of products/technology: Products are derived from renewable feedstocks and produced at a low cost enabled by patented innovations on a conventional chemical process. Low cost is achieved through full feedstock conversion, recovery and reuse of reagent, low energy consumption, and use of proven processes. Catalytic oxidation platform can be extended to a range of sugars and organic alcohols (C3, C4, C5, etc.) to produce organic acids, in most cases using the same equipment.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
In targeted markets, Rivertop’s biobased products offer outstanding cost/performance benefits compared with other builders, chelants, and corrosion inhibitors in current use. The multifunctional attributes of the company’s novel chemicals include: (i) addressing the ongoing need for safe, sustainable ingredients and (ii) giving customers a new—and sustainable—set of chemical “tools” to use in building better products that will meet the demands of an increasingly health- and safety-conscious customer base.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
Rivertop is one of the few biobased companies with a focus on innovation in chemistry vs. biology. The company operates from a versatile and readily scalable oxidation technology platform. Proprietary innovations on traditional oxidation chemistry enable the industrial-scale introduction of novel sugar acids and sugar alcohols, beginning with glucaric acid [HOOC-(CHOH)4-COOH]. Production of large volumes can be scaled up quickly and predictably with moderate capital requirements.


Cleantech Open finalist. The company was named one of “The 30 Hottest Companies in Biobased Chemicals and Materials” for 2013–2014 by


Products and their characteristics:
Rivertop is developing multiple renewable products based on its glucaric acid platform. One example is Riose™ detergent builder—a novel, cost-effective product to replace phosphates and other less effective and/or nonrenewable builder ingredients in automatic dishwashing detergents. Due to its high binding capacity and multifunctionality as a chelant and corrosion inhibitor, variations on this chemistry are suitable for a range of industry applications in consumer and I&I detergents, water treatment, and related industries. In addition to producing glucaric acid from glucose, Rivertop’s platform technology works quite well with a range of natural feedstocks. This enables development of multiple unique novel products. In the longer term, Rivertop’s sugar acids will be developed as advanced biodegradable polymers, adhesives, and other functional materials.


Commercialization and scale:
Rivertop plans to be producing commercial quantities of its products at intermediate commercial scale (approximately one million pounds—or 450 thousand kilograms— per month) in the fourth quarter of 2014 with full regulatory approvals in place. Market development is under way in the consumer detergents sector, and the company is directly engaged with key players in the industry.


Business development model and plans:
Rivertop plans to interface directly with leading producers in the consumer detergents market to reach global customers. The company is seeking, and in some instances has begun, commercial development partnerships that will allow it to serve additional markets for its technology platform and products.


Key challenges:
Novel chemicals require a higher burden of proof to qualify for replacement of existing ingredients. Accordingly, Rivertop is focused on markets driven by needs for better cost/performance and sustainability. Investments in new, sustainable, and multifunctional chemicals provide a durable competitive advantage to customers. Co-developing applications with research-driven customers and partners accelerates market adoption of our novel chemicals.

Development of product applications knowledge and performance testing are critical success factors in most of the markets the company plans to serve. Rivertop has invested in its own in-house testing capabilities with respect to consumer auto-dish application, including a laboratory full of dishwashers. In other markets, the company has conducted proof of concept work in-house and has also consulted with potential partners to understand the performance requirements of prospective product applications.


Inherent™ renewable building blocks: di-functional esters, renewable olefins, and novel monomers

Company: Elevance Renewable Sciences, Inc.

Feedstock: multiple renewable oil feedstocks, including palm, canola, soybean, rapeseed, mustard, to name a few, and, when they become commercially available, new feedstocks such as jatropha and algal oils

Synthetic process: proprietary metathesis technology (based on Nobel Prize-winning chemical catalysts)

Potential applications: surfactants (consumer and industrial cleaning, dispersion, emulsification, rheology, and de-foaming) and personal care (hair care, skin care, film-forming, emollients, and moisturizers)

Key targeted market segment(s): personal care, home care, agriculture, oil field, paints and coatings, construction materials, biocides, performance waxes

Contacts: Andy Corr, senior vice president, consumer and industrial ingredients,; Andy Shafer, executive vice president, sales and market development,


Key aspects of products/technology:
Elevance uses Nobel Prize-winning metathesis catalyst technology to transform renewable oils into novel, high-performing ester, olefin, and triglyceride molecules. The company’s unique process has allowed it to scale up easily at high yields and commercially compelling economics. The technology produces a diverse range of building blocks and ingredients through a low-pressure, low-temperature process that consumes significantly less energy and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% compared to petrochemical technologies, resulting in low source pollution, production costs, and capital expenditures.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
Elevance Inherent™ renewable building blocks provide pathways for game-changing performance in surfactants, enabling improved cold-water performance, better degreasing and solvency, improved concentration, and low content of volatile organic compounds (VOC). Elevance Smooth and Soft personal care ingredients provide renewable, silicone-free replacements that provide smooth sensory attributes (silky without sticky feel), unique film-forming characteristics (longer-lasting, moisture barrier), and improved compatibility in formulations.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
Elevance technology is one of the first renewable technologies that has reached world-scale commercial production through both the company’s 180,000-metric-tons (MT)-per-year bio-refinery and toll manufacturing processes. The company is focused on providing products that deliver enhanced performance, are derived from renewable feedstocks, and offer sustainable solutions—a new category of materials they call Renewicals™,that meet customer needs that couldn’t be met before in personal care, surfactants, and performance waxes. Its materials are available globally as building blocks and ingredients, providing compelling cost performance today.


Nobel Prize-winning chemical catalysts are at the heart of Elevance’s technology. The company was named in Business Week’s “Most Successful Start-ups of 2008,” won the US Environmental Protection Agency Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2012, and was named among Crain’s “Top 25 Most Innovative Companies” in 2012. It has been included in the Global Cleantech Top 100 list multiple times and it has been listed in the top of Biofuels Digest’s “30 Hottest Companies in Renewable Chemicals and Materials” for several years.


Products and their characteristics:
Elevance Smooth personal care ingredients are sold by a global distributor network into leading skin care, hair care, lip balm, and color cosmetic products. They include Elevance Smooth CS110 and Elevance Smooth CG100, both 100% natural renewable emollients that provide unique smooth skin feel, film-forming characteristics, and rheology modification (thickening). In addition, Elevance NatureWax™ products are sold worldwide. The company’s partners, including Stepan, are now introducing novel products globally, based on Elevance’s Inherent renewable building blocks, into consumer and industrial applications, such as home care, personal care, agriculture, construction, and oilfield, as well as other applications that require high-performance degreasing, cold-water cleaning, and unique foaming characteristics.


Commercialization and scale:
Elevance has been producing and selling its Elevance Smooth and Soft personal care products and Elevance NatureWax line globally for more than five years. It is also now operating its first world-scale biorefinery in Asia based on  the company’s propriety metathesis technology, has a capacity of 180,000 MT, with the ability to expand up to 360,000 MT of products. Elevance has also announced it is building a second plant to be based in Natchez, Mississippi, USA, that will have a capacity of 280,000 MT. Elevance products have broadly received regulatory approvals in the United States (Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA) and Europe (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, or REACH) and are being offered globally directly, through its global distribution network for personal care. The company’s various partners are also now offering products based on Elevance’s Inherent™ renewable building blocks.


Business development model and plans:
Elevance’s model it is to work with a broad range of partners to bring together complementary capabilities (assets, market expertise, distribution capabilities, R&D, etc.) to develop products that meet customer needs quickly, scale up cost effectively, reach markets rapidly, and support customer application development. Elevance’s collaborative partnership model works to create value through the supply chain and facilitate speed to market.  Inherent™ renewable building blocks represent a new, versatile tool for companies interested in applying their chemistry to create innovative new derivatives. Elevance also believes there is significant potential for creating new ingredients for companies that need or wish to focus on solutions that can simply be formulated. The company continues to expand its collaborations and partnerships worldwide.


Key challenges:
There are large hurdles to innovation, including regulatory approvals, prolonged reformulation efforts, and qualification processes that exist across the value chain. It takes time for companies and markets within our industry to shift and adjust to innovations, like a large ship trying to turn. Elevance is addressing these hurdles by partnering with all stakeholders—including government agencies, brand owners, R&D labs, and manufacturing partners—up and down the value chain. This enables Elevance to address challenges early, and to work with the appropriate stakeholder to navigate risks rapidly and effectively to bring innovative products to partners and consumers across markets.


Tailored™ Algal Oils

Company: Solazyme, Inc.

Feedstock: feedstock flexible (low-cost agricultural materials such as sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose, and sugar from other biomass sources, such as cellulosics)

Synthetic process: Solazyme’s process is fermentation-based and involves aspects of molecular biology combined with classical strain improvement.

Potential applications: specialty chemicals (e.g., fatty alcohols, dimer acids), plastics (e.g., polyurethane), functional fluids (e.g., lubricants and greases, plasticizers, solvents, transformer dielectric fluids), and home and personal care (e.g., soaps, surfactants, emollients)

Key targeted market segment(s): healthful frying oils and food ingredients, high-performance industrial and specialty chemicals, lubricants and greases, solvents, and fatty alcohols and surfactants



Key aspects of products/technology:
Solazyme’s breakthrough TailoredTM Algal Oils technology platform uses microalgae to convert non-nutritious,  inedible sugars into renewable, TailoredTM Algal Oils for multiple markets—this is the first bridge between what the Earth is good at making (carbohydrates) and what society runs on (oils). Using standard industrial fermentation, Solazyme has efficiently built a platform that produces new, sustainable oils in a matter of days.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products:
Solazyme’s TailoredTM Algal Oils provide a unique opportunity to develop and produce next-generation functional fluids and specialty chemicals that boast a number of increased performance benefits compared to those currently available. For example, the company’s TailoredTM Algal Oils offer increased fire safety over petroleum-derived oils thanks to a significantly higher flash point. Key performance properties of Solazyme’s TailoredTM Algal Oils include biodegradability, which significantly reduces the need for environmental cleanup in the event of a spill; increased thermal and oxidative stability, which potentially improve the performance in a wide range of applications from fiber lubricants to dielectric insulating fluids; and overall viscosity control, as Solazyme’s TailoredTM Algal Oils provide an excellent viscosity index that results in consistent fluid properties over a wide temperature range (read sidebar, “How customized algal oils led to improved high performance fiber lubricants). Solazyme’s renewable TailoredTM Algal Oils are the first bio-based oils with the quality, purity, and consistency of industrially produced petroleum-derived chemicals.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
Solazyme can create oils that are uniquely tailored to address specific customer requirements, offering a high-value solution with superior performance at a competitive price and an enhanced value compared to conventional oils. Solazyme’s TailoredTM Algal Oil technology means that the company can deliver the highest-value cuts of the barrel of oil to its partners and deliver a completely uniform barrel of oil designed for a specific purpose or product so there is a reduction of waste overall in the process. In lubricant and functional fluid applications, Solazyme renewable TailoredTM Algal Oils represent a paradigm shift. For the first time oils can be designed to deliver “best of both” performance—with the benefits of bio-based oils (lubricity, fire point, viscosity index, etc.) plus performance of synthetics (thermal /oxidative stability, pour point, hydrolytic stability, etc.).


Solazyme has received numerous industry recognitions and awards. For example, Solazyme won Popular Science’s “Best of What’s New” in 2012. Solazyme’s CEO, Jonathan Wolfson, was selected as one of Forbes’“12 Most Disruptive Names in Business” in 2013. The company was selected as a 2012 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. Solazyme was named #1 in the Biofuels Digest “50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy” for 2010–2011 and for 2012, and it was also awarded the Biofuels Digest “Company of the Year” award in 2010. Additionally, the company was named to Time magazine’s top 20 Green Tech ideas of the year for 2010.


Products and their characteristics:
Solazyme is offering renewable, TailoredTM Algal Oils to meet the performance and functional demands of the chemicals industry. By tailoring the composition of the oil, the company is able to develop oils that meet customer needs including improved purity, oxidative stability, fire point, solubility, and flash point. Solazyme’s oils also provide low VOC, light color and color stability, and low odor.


Commercialization and scale:
Solazyme has production capability at a range of scale, and the company is rapidly scaling up technology to produce  TailoredTM Algal Oils for the chemicals industry. The company’s semi-commercial facility in Peoria, Illinois, USA, is fully operational and producing demonstration-scale volumes of oils today. In December 2012, Solazyme announced successful completion of multiple initial fermentation runs at the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) facility in Clinton, Iowa, USA. Solazyme is initially targeting annual production of 20,000 metric tons (MT) of oil starting in early 2014 at the ADM facility, with targeted expansion to 100,000 MT. The scale achieved at ADM’s Clinton facility is comparable to the fermentation equipment currently under construction at the Solazyme Bunge Renewable Oils facility in Orindiúva, Brazil. This 100,000 MT annual nameplate capacity facility in Brazil, expandable to 300,000 MT, is scheduled to come online in the first quarter of 2014.


Key challenges:
Solazyme has already been operating at commercial levels, producing hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil for chemical and industrial applications. The company has continued to demonstrate progress toward building out the key infrastructure, partnerships, and joint venture agreements needed to produce Solazyme oils at scale for multiple markets and industries.


Metabolically engineering yeast to produce terpenes

Company: Allylix, Inc.

Synthetic process: fermentation using yeast that has been metabolically engineered to produce terpenes

Potential applications: allows for the commercialdevelopment of natural terpenes and their derivatives, as well as the creation of novel compounds

Key targeted market segment(s): current focus on flavor and fragrance industry; plans to target insect control, cosmetic chemicals, and food ingredients

Contact: Carolyn Fritz, CEO,


Key aspects of products/technology:
Allylix’s multifaceted technology platform includes all of the molecular biology and engineering elements necessary to go from gene isolation to commercial scale production of terpenes, including gene cloning and expression, metabolic engineering, protein engineering, fermentation development, recovery and purification, and organic chemistry. Specifically, Allylix’s technology platform consists of: (i) terpene cyclase gene cloning and expression, (ii) protein engineering to improve specificity and/or activity of terpene cyclases, (iii) yeast metabolic engineering to produce terpenes, (iv) fermentation development and recovery processes for the production of sesquiterpene products, and (v) production of commercially inaccessible or novel sesquiterpenes by chemobiosynthesis of combinatorial libraries.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
Allylix’s technology platform allows it to produce terpenes biosynthetically. Because most terpenes have complex structures, historically there has been no cost-effective way to produce them. By producing them biologically, Allylix can now commercially produce this important class of chemicals.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
Unlike other companies in the renewable chemicals industry, Allylix can produce terpenes. Because Allylix’s scientific founders were pioneers in the field, the company has a strong intellectual property portfolio.


Allylix won the 2012 FiFi Technological Breakthrough of the Year award in the Fragrance Ingredients, Creation and Testing category; as well as the San Diego Business Journal’s Innovation Award in the biotechnology category in 2013.  


Products and their characteristics:
Allylix currently offers three flavors and fragrances: valencene, nootkatone, and Epivone™. Valencene is an orange flavor and fragrance that traditionally was extracted from the peel of Valencia oranges, meaning the cost and supply would fluctuate depending on the yearly harvest. Nootkatone is the flavor and fragrance material that gives grapefruit its unique aroma. It is a fresh, citrus, woody note and is naturally present in grapefruit peel oil in minute quantities, although in the past it has primarily been produced by the oxidation of valencene. Epivone is a novel patented and trademarked compound produced by Allylix that is structurally related to β-vetivone, one of the key components of vetiver oil. It is characterized as woody, cassis, rich yet fruity, and containing a grapefruit effect.


Commercialization and scale:
Allylix is currently at full commercial scale and selling product. The company also has a pipeline of products.


Business development model and plans:
The company is taking products currently in Allylix’s pipeline of flavors and fragrances to market directly. For products outside of that pipeline, Allylix is working with partners to bring compounds to market.


Key challenges:
As Allylix completes its flavor and fragrance pipeline, the next challenges the company faces includes expanding into new markets, such as insect control.


Levulinic acid and derivatives such as levulinic ketals

Company: Segetis, Inc.

Feedstock: any cellulosic or hemicellulosic biomass

Synthetic process: hydrolysis of sugars and esterification

Potential applications: plasticizers for flexible PVC and biopolymers, formulation aids for detergents and cleaners, solubilizers for agrochemical formulations, personal care and cosmetic formulations, intermediates for polyamides and polyesters, and ionic polymers

Key targeted market segment(s): PVC and biopolymer compounders, household, I&I, agrochemicals, personal care, and polyamide

Contact: Graham Merfield,


Key aspects of products/technology:
Proprietary process for converting sugar to levulinic acid in an efficient, economical way. Proprietary levulinic ketal products. Levulinic acid and levulinic ketals are chemical building blocks that can be used to make a very diverse product portfolio that spans novel, specialty products to drop-in replacements of commodity chemicals.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
Segetis’ levulinic ketal products are new-to-the-world renewably sourced chemicals that offer unique performance profiles. One of Segetis’ plasticizers, for instance, is a biobased phthalate-free substitute for the banned butyl benzyl phthalate with improved volatility and superior resistance to nonpolar extraction. The company’s formulating aids help hold liquid formulations together and help incorporate difficult-to-use actives. Levulinic ketals are made from levulinic acid, which is a decomposition product of cellulose and hemicellulose. Levulinic acid itself has a unique oxygen-rich chemical functionality—a ketone group connected to an acid group—that enables transformation into a wide array of chemical products that will be impacted by the development of shale gas. Shale gas has been widely heralded as a game changer for the energy and chemicals markets; however, it is increasing availability of only C1–C4 petrochemical feedstocks. Industry continues to rely on naphtha and other heavier oil inputs for the C4–C8 materials. The molecular composition of levulinic acid provides a pathway to a broad range of C4–C8 molecules that are currently sourced from petroleum. Segetis’ levulinic acid technology therefore addresses both the upcoming naphtha shortages and the drive toward biomass-based alternatives with advantages in terms of sustainability and a more efficient carbon footprint.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
All of Segetis’ technologies are based on thermochemical conversion, which provides a biobased chemical platform with the scale-up ease and purity of a traditional chemical product. The technology is suitable for a wide range of feedstocks, giving us the flexibility to source the best available feedstock based on the locale and the economics.


Early commercial success with levulinic ketal products and clearance of chemical registration hurdles in three of the largest market areas are vital recognition of Segetis’ technology.


Products and their characteristics:
Levulinic acid and levulinic ketals are chemical building blocks that are easily derivatized into a range of products. Segetis’ levulinic ketal derivatives are currently used as formulation aids and as polymer plasticizers. Levulinic acid is an intermediate for nylon, polylactones, and water-soluble ionic polymers.


Commercialization and scale:
Segetis has several products that are listed on TSCA, Canadian Non-Domestic Substances List (NDSL), and are registered under REACH. The company is currently at the demonstration scale. The next step is to scale up to commercial scale.


Business development model and plans:
The company is working with strategic customers across target market segments to validate its technology and products using material from our demonstration-scale facility. Segetis works directly with these customers to develop firsthand knowledge of the market and customer needs with support from its in-house applications development team.


Key challenges:
Levulinic acid has been identified as a platform chemical for the future (Top Value Added Chemicals from Biomass Volume I, US Department of Energy, 2004). For this to become a reality, the market for the downstream derivatives and scaled-up levulinic acid production must be developed so that the economics and capacity to fully realize the market potential can be achieved.


Itaconix DSP™ polymers

Company: Itaconix Corp.

Feedstock: itaconic acid, which is produced by the fermentation of sugar

Synthetic process: polymerization

Potential applications: chelation and dispersion in detergents, cleaners, and personal care

Key targeted market segment(s): replacement of phosphates and ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) in consumer detergents, I&I detergents, and cleaners

Contact: John Shaw, CEO, +1 603 686-7550,


Key aspects of products/technology:
Itaconix DSP polymers are the most cost-effective materials available for chelating calcium and other metal ions to improve the performance of detergents and cleaners. The polymers are made from renewable resources and are readily biodegradable.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
Itaconix DSP polymers bind more calcium per gram than EDTA or phosphates. With their additional dispersion and detergency properties, these polymers can improve the performance and reduce the cost of standard and green detergent and cleaner formulas.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?
Itaconix entered the market with its first commercial polymer sales in 2009 and remains the leading commercial producer of polyitaconic acid in the world. Its polymers are in consumer products on store shelves across North America and Europe and are gaining increased adoption and use based on novel performance and cost efficacy.


Lux Research named Itaconix one of its top 10 emerging technologies of 2012.


Products and their characteristics:
Itaconix DSP polymers have a combination of chelation, dispersion, and detergency properties that are more similar to those of phosphates than other standard or green alternatives. Customers in consumer and I&I detergent markets are able to formulate products with comparable performance to phosphate-based products.


Commercialization and scale:
We sell and provide technical and formulation services directly to companies in North America and Europe. Products are available directly from the company’s production facility in the state of New Hampshire and through distribution in the United States and Europe.


Key challenges:
The reformulation process for detergents and cleaners can take up to 18 months to complete. The company is increasing the awareness of its polymers and the advantages of formulations based on its polymers with technical and formulation services.



Company: Virent

Feedstock: Conventional and cellulosic biomass-derived carbohydrates

Synthetic process: BioForming via catalytic chemistry

Potential applications: biobased chemicals for fibers and plastics, as well as biobased gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel

Key targeted market segment(s): beverage/bottling companies,diesel and jet fuel customers

Contact:Kieran Furlong,


Key aspects of products/technology:
Virent’s process to make chemicals (and also hydrocarbon fuels) is based on a novel combination of its APR technology with modified conventional catalytic processing technologies. The process, trademarked BioForming®, uses catalytic chemistry to convert aqueous carbohydrate solutions into a mix of hydrocarbons. The BioForming platform expands the utility of the APR process in combination with catalysts and reactor systems similar to those found in standard petroleum oil refineries and petrochemical complexes.


How they compare with traditional (petrochemical or oleochemical) products and surfactants:
Virent’s biobased chemicals are molecularly identical to their petrochemical counterparts; therefore, there is no compromise in quality or performance. Unlike petrochemicals, Virent’s technology can utilize many different feedstocks, giving companies an opportunity to diversify their supply chain to combat volatile crude oil prices. For any country that is a net importer of crude oil, biobased hydrocarbons can decrease reliance on imported oil and provide development opportunities for agriculture and forestry sectors as well as rural communities.

Compared to petroleum as a feedstock, Virent’s process can reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) by up to 55% by using conventional sugars. See Sidebar.


What differentiates them from other renewable products and technologies?

  • Products are premium substitutes for their conventional counterparts. Unlike newer, novel chemicals, Virent’s products are molecularly identical to their petrochemical counterparts. They are referred to as “drop-in,” meaning they can utilize today’s infrastructure investment and be dropped into existing supply chains.
  • The molecules on which products are based are well known and understood. While some companies are attempting to make new types of plastics from novel molecules, Virent’s strategy is to make a drop-in molecule offering desired performance characteristics that leverage years of previous research and commercialization and, in turn, accelerates time to market.  
    • The BioForming process has the ability to use conventional and nonconventional sugars for conversion to fuels and chemicals. It can generate products from mixed sugar streams, polysaccharides, and fermentation inhibitors such as furans that are formed during biomass deconstruction. This greatly increases Virent’s ability to use cellulosic biomass as a viable and renewable feedstock. Virent’s BioFormPX product offers companies an opportunity to diversify their supply chains to combat volatile crude oil prices.
    • Products have low carbon footprints. Preliminary greenhouse gas emissions have been developed using US corn, European sugar beet, and Brazilian sugarcane as potential feedstocks in an aromatics plant configuration using an economic allocation basis. Virent estimates reduction in GHG emissions of approximately 30%, 35% and 55% using US corn, EU sugar beets, and Brazilian sugarcane, respectively, vs. a petroleum baseline.  


ICIS Chemical Business Innovation Award for Best Innovation by a Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise (2008), Red Herring North America Award (2008), World Economic Forum Award (2008), EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2009), Global Cleantech 100 Award (2010), ICIS Chemical Business Innovation Award for Sustainability (2013), Second runner-up in Securing America’s Future Energy’s Emerging Innovation Award (2013)  among others.


Products and their characteristics:
The company is currently in the product development phase. It has proven that its technology works and is aggressively seeking partnerships to help de-risk and scale up its technology to bring premium products to market as soon as possible.


Commercialization and scale:
Virent intends to move to a 1,000× scale-up of its process in a semi-works plant that will produce tens of thousands of tons of the primary product, para-xylene. This will likely be done in conjunction with a strategic manufacturing partner, and timing and ultimate scale will be very dependent on who that partner is and what infrastructure it has. Virent is currently targeting commercial sales by 2016.


Business development model and plans:
Virent aims to commercialize its products through partnerships and is open to joint development and licensing agreements as well as joint ventures. The company believes that focusing on para-xylene will allow it to generate positive cash flow in the shortest time, and it is actively engaging in the selection of a strategic chemical manufacturing partner.


Key challenges:
It’s challenging to compete against an existing industry with established supply chains and depreciated infrastructure. However, Virent believes in the promise of its technology and is developing innovative concepts to lower costs and offer competitively priced products.

The obstacles Virent faces are not uncommon to other renewable fuel and chemical companies, which are primarily difficulty in accessing capital required to scale up a novel technology. The difference is that Virent has developed needed capabilities and forged key partnerships/relationships to mitigate those risks.



Novelty vs. equivalency

For those familiar with the history of renewables, the recent trend toward novel chemicals is a sign that the industry has come full circle. Initially, some of the first renewables to be developed were novel chemicals, but high switching costs, regulatory challenges, and the burden of having to prove to potential customers that such novel chemicals would work exactly the same in an engine or other piece of equipment as the chemical it was designed to replace caused most small startups to adapt their business strategy and focus on drop-ins.

Virent is a prime example of a company that successfully directed its technology towards drop-in chemicals by combining its novel Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) technology with modified conventional catalytic processing technologies. The resulting premium drop-in BioForming® technology expands the utility of the APR process in combination with catalysts and reactor systems similar to those found in standard petroleum oil refineries and petrochemical complexes.

How customized algal oils led to improved high performance fiber lubricants

Kevin Quon


In October 2013, Solazyme jointly announced a commercial supply agreement with Goulston Technologies Inc., a leading producer of high-performance fiber lubricants. The agreement is a perfect case study of the way the San Francisco-based renewable oils company uses its novel technology platform to increase the sustainability of triglycerides. This collaboration will focus on the utilization of Solazyme’s oils to supply a sustainable substitute to currently utilized ingredients and the development of new products with enhanced functionality and performance.

Textiles may not have been the first addressable market Solazyme had in mind, but along the journey to designing a renewable source of fuel, the company adapted its corporate direction to align with the strengths of its technology platform. Over the past decade, the company has refined its ability to control microorganisms, both in regards to scaling up production and in terms of modifying product output.

Solazyme was among the first to realize that heterotrophic microalgae could be harnessed as a highly productive organism, efficiently serving as a flexible host for triglyceride oil production. The company has since developed the ability to adjust the carbon chain length of fatty acids, modify the degree of chemical saturation in a triglyceride, and control the position of a fatty acid on the glycerol moiety. Today, this unique combination of tailoring capabilities enables a wide array of customized solutions for companies looking to increase their product functionality.

The fiber lubricants market is just one example of how this technology is now being implemented. One challenge facing this industry is that formulators are limited to very few classes of ingredients capable of meeting specific conditions.  

Compounding this market restriction is the growing demand for biobased raw materials that reduce environmental impact. According to industry estimates, the fiber lubricants market has grown to more than 1 billion pounds [450 million kilograms] annually. These lubricants have a relatively short lifespan of functionality, making it important to secure stable raw material supply chains. In many cases, such lubricants quickly become part of the waste stream - they are applied to the fiber before high speed processing and are subsequently removed during the fabric dyeing process.

The agreement announced in October 2013 called for the supply of Solazyme’s Tailored™ Algal Oils to be used in a new class of sustainable products being developed by Goulston Technologies. Solazyme is expected to fulfill this agreement utilizing its customized high-oleic oil. These high-oleic algal oils will provide Goulston with excellent lubrication, viscosity, and stability properties while operating at elevated temperatures, and speed. In addition they are enabling Goulston to deliver more sustainable solutions without compromising the performance demanded by the textile industry.

Fiber lubricants are not the only application for which Solayzme’s high-oleic algal oils have been shown to improve product properties. In 2012, the Dow Chemical Co. signed a contingent off-take agreement with Solazyme for the use of this oil in its dielectric insulating fluids. The oil provides higher fire resistance and increased longevity along with a nontoxic alternative to mineral oils. The Archer Daniels Midland Company also conducted a frying study on these high-oleic oils for food applications. The company found that after 10 days of use Solazyme’s high-oleic oil had more frying life left than the premium high-oleic canola oil had at the start of the test.

High-oleic oils are one of the first products of Solayzme’s ability to customize solutions using a proprietary technology platform. Such a capability allows companies with oil needs to effectively address two challenges simultaneously. Not only are these forward-thinking companies establishing sustainable supply chains through the use of renewable resources, they are also doing so by improving the overall functionality of the products in their target markets. This opens the door for innovation where, at least in the case of fiber lubricants, an new class of products is now being developed for the global industry by Goulston Technologies.

Kevin Quon is an independent trader and author who writes for Seeking Alpha, an online platform for investment research that provides insight from investors and industry experts rather than sell-side analysts.


Ranganathan, S., and M. Kutsenko, Dynamic Wetting Advances in BCF Finish Development." Goulston Technologies, Inc., October 29, 2009.

A representative list of other companies involved in commercializing novel pathways to biobased commodity chemicalsα

list of other companies involved in commercializin

αModified from a presentation by Andrew Soare of Lux Research (Singapore), “How novel materials and technologies will transform the bio-based industry through 2020,” given November 21, 2013, at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board International Palm Oil Congress (PIPOC) held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For more information, visit,” or use the email address,

bSyngas: hydrogen and CO (or CO2). Biogas: CO2 and CH4.