🏭 The Column: Nov 22, 2023

PureCycle's problems, OCOChem, Origin's layoff, LyondellBasell and MoReTec, LanzaTech and steel, Goodyear, and Evonik.

Good morning. I accidentally shared the wrong link last week on ethanol and CO2 pipelines—here’s the right one. Hope all of you have a great Thanksgiving weekend and see you next Wednesday!

Worth Reading:

Birth of The Petrochemical Industry

My chemical engineering education lacked context. We spent a lot more time learning about how we make chemicals today, and not enough time on why we make them the way we do, or how that has changed over time. I could go on for a while about how problematic this is, but I digress: get yourself up to speed on the origins of the modern chemical industry by giving this ACS article a read. The short version: acetylene had the throne before ethylene, and we used to just waste the ethane part of raw natural gas. A lot can happen in a century. [LINK]

What’s Going On:

PureCycle problems

Unfortunately for mechanical recyclers, polymers degrade over time (the bonds that make up the polymer backbone break and oxidize), so product quality suffers, and 2) the polymers are often blended with colorants, so recycled plastic ends up being opaque and grey. Most molecular recyclers are energy maximalists, and solve #1 and #2 with a mix of depolymerization, separations, and repolymerization. PureCycle is attempting to commercialize a minimalist approach that just tackles #2, and just works for polypropylene (PP). Their first site started up last summer, but it hasn’t been going well, and now the company is at risk of defaulting on the municipal bonds it used to finance its efforts. If that happens it will likely be the end of PureCycle, but not the end of this technology; it’s Proctor & Gamble’s process, PureCycle is just licensing it. [LINK]

OCOChem raised some money

There are a two ways to look at captured carbon: 1) it’s a waste stream, and should be disposed of at the expense of a) the emitter, or b) the government, or 2) it’s a resource, and should be utilized by many profit-seeking companies with promising long-term economics. The Column is mostly interested in watching how #2 develops, and OCOChem is an interesting contender. Like Avantium, the company is developing an electrochemical process to reduce CO2 to formate, because formate has some platform-molecule-potential (e.g. it could be coupled to make oxalate, then acidified and reduced all the way to ethylene glycol). Anyways—OCOChem just raised $5m and will use a lot of it to build a pilot plant. [LINK]

Origin’s workforce reduction

We talked about Origin Materials’ near-term pivot about a month ago, and the story on that front is still the same: both the cost of capital equipment and the cost of capital itself have risen greatly in the last couple of years, so Origin decided to suspend its ambitions in hopes of generating cash flow sooner. Now, to buy themselves more time, they decided to lay off 30% of their workforce earlier this week. That may sound harsh, but doing so will meaningfully increase Origin’s runway—you can’t burn capital forever, and you can’t solve the big problems if you die before you get the chance to. [LINK]

LyondellBasell’s MoReTec plans

LyondellBasell has probably been the most outspoken incumbent when it comes to the topic of plastic waste. Maybe it’s cultural (they do have European roots), or maybe it’s technology-based (they have a well established catalyst business). Either way, their molecular recycling process, called MoReTec, is basically just pyrolysis plus a proprietary catalyst. Their pilot plant apparently performed well enough for them to justify building a demonstration-scale site, so that’s exactly what they are going to do. [LINK]

AccelerMitol and LanzaTech’s partnership

LanzaTech is basically a syngas fermenter; they developed a microorganism that produces ethanol when fed a mixture of emissions (carbon monoxide and CO2) and hydrogen (details here). That fermentation process is currently in use at two steel mills in China, one in Shanghai and one near Beijing, and has produced over 30 million gallons of ethanol over their combined lifetimes. And, now, courtesy of a reader in The Column’s Discord, LanzaTech’s process is now in use at a Belgian steel mill. [LINK]

Goodyear’s chemical business

The OG tire companies (Goodyear, Michelin, and Pirelli) used to produce their very own chemicals and rubber, but later entrants (Bridgestone and Hankook) just bought from the glut of rubber producers that spawned during and post World War II. Both Michelin and Pirelli have since exited their material beginnings, leaving Goodyear standing as the only one still making polybutadiene, styrene butadiene rubber, and isoprene. That might change soon; the company announced its intent to sell off that business. [LINK]

Evonik flattens chips

When people think of the relation between sand and semiconductors, they’d be right to think that it’s mostly about how we go from sand to polysilicon: the base material chips are built upon. But that’s not the only connection—making a chip is a highly iterative process of adding and removing layers with extreme precision. One repetitive step in the process is chemical mechanical planarization (CMP), which uses a slurry of nano-sized abrasives dispersed in either an acidic or basic solution as a layer flattener (they are used in between certain layering steps). Evonik is going to build a plant in Michigan that will produce those nano-sized abrasives (aka colloidal silica). [LINK]

Other Things Happen:

NuScale (a small modular nuclear reactor startup) is working with the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to do a year-long techno-economic analysis. Ineos and Sinopec started up their new acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene plant in China. Orion finished building their second carbon black plant, also in China. Miliken’s recycled polypropylene additive will be put to good use in Indonesia. Indorama mothballed its terephthalic acid plant in Portugal.

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