🏭 The Column: May 3, 2024

Origin's cap business, SK Geocentric’s better PLA process, Ex-Solvay and Orbia broke ground, and Potassium formate from CO2.

Good morning. I don’t have any random commentary that’s worth sharing at the top of this week’s edition, but, if you’re interested, my friend Abhi over at General Biological is still looking for chemical engineers (apply over here).

Things Happened:

Origin’s cap business

If you don’t look closely, it’s easy to write off Origin Materials as a singular bet on carbon negative polyethylene terephthalate (PET). But a better model for Origin, or for any chemical company, is to think of what they do at two levels: at the first level they develop a core technology, and at the second level they develop channels to market for everything that comes out of that core technology. PET is closer to the end of the channel than the output of their core technology (the conversion of lignocellulose into useful feedstocks), but there’s little reason for Origin to stop there. So, at some point during channel development, Origin figured out how to produce bottle caps made out of PET, and since you can go to market faster (and usually with higher margins) at the end of the value chain, they’re ramping their caps business and hoping that it will provide the cash flow needed to sustain development at the first level. [LINK]

SK Geocentric’s better PLA process

There’s a plethora of biodegradable polymers out there, but among those that have been commercialized, polylactic acid (PLA) takes the cake. But to make PLA you need lactic acid, which we make by fermenting sugars. Apparently one part of that process is neutralization via the addition of calcium, which produces calcium sulfate as an unwanted by-product. SK Geocentric is saying that their new microbe can handle a more acidic environment, which means that less calcium will be needed and less of that by-product will be produced. That should reduce the costs associated with removing the by-product, which should reduce the cost of production overall. [LINK]

Ex-Solvay and Orbia broke ground

Solvay’s specialty chemical business, now spun off as Syensqo, broke ground on its joint polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) plant in Augusta, Georgia alongside its partner, Orbia, and its overlord, the DOE (who granted the two companies $178m to build the site back in 2022). PVDF is pretty interesting: the polymer has seen more attention recently because of applications in lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) as an electrode binder or separator coating, but it has a much longer history of use in semiconductors (since the 1980s) and can be used for things like water filtration and immunodiagnostics as well. Rest assured that the PVDF coming out of this plant will find its way into batteries near you. [LINK]

Potassium formate from CO2

Usually when the incumbents talk about capturing point-source CO2 the buck stops there. Any CO2 captured is no longer their problem—it just needs to be sent down a pipeline to someone who will handle its sequestration. That isn’t a real plan until those pipelines exist or the capital needed to build them is committed. So I’m usually a fan of announcements that mention utilizing captured CO2, which is why Austria’s OMV caught my attention: they want to convert that CO2 into the salt of formic acid (presumably via hydrogenation), which has some applications (e.g. for use as a deicer) and plenty of derivatives. [LINK]

Other Things Happened:

Mitsubishi and Frontier Lithium signed a deal and are moving forward with their lithium plans. Himadri is expanding its carbon black production. Sipchem is taking down a few plants for their scheduled maintenance. LyondellBasell is building a recycling hub in Europe. Domo is starting up its new nylons plant. Carbios broke ground on its first PET bio-recycling plant. Looks like the C-Suite at Chemours was up to no good. Linde is going to spend $150m on a new ASU.


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