🏭 Photocatalysts are magic

Syzygy's photocatalyst demo, Holiferm's biosurfactant plans, and bisphenol A.


Good morning. I don't normally send The Column to free readers on Friday, but Syzygy's announcement brought up some extra interesting concepts, so I decided to break the rule. Also—be sure to check out The Column's job board—some roles are listed above the meme in the bottoms!

From the condenser:

· Syzygy's photocatalyst demo

· Holiferm's biosurfactant plans

· MOTD: bisphenol A

balls floating in space, with blue lasers

Syzygy's first demo plant is coming

Houston-based startup, Syzygy Plasmonics, has reached an agreement with a non-profit research institute to build a demonstration scale site for its photocatalytic reactor.

A little bit of context:

A couple of professors at Rice University developed a novel photocatalyst that looks like a spikey ball, where the ball is a traditional catalyst (just really tiny, at the nano-scale), and the spikes are plasmonic nanoparticles (which absorb light and eject electrons). Syzygy is licensing that technology in an attempt to commercialize it—so far they've raised a Series A in 2019, and then a Series B in 2021.

Bonus context, because it's needed:

Think about the greatest tradeoff in chemical engineering: the kinetics of a reaction might benefit from higher temperatures (better rates), but the thermodynamics of that reaction might benefit from lower temperatures (better conversion). So, what do we do? We compromise, we get creative with separations processes, and we do our best to develop magic catalysts that solve the kinetics problem (by trying to make the high rates happen at low temperatures).

Tying it together:

Syzygy is developing the most magical catalyst of them all: instead of increasing your reaction temperature to get electrons ready for action, you can just zap Syzygy's photocatalyst and provide an external source of electrons to the reaction site. Conceptually, the reason this works is the same reason why you might want to catalyze a reaction with a plasma (which we talked about on Wednesday), and the appeal is the same too: yes, these methods do require energy to improve reaction kinetics, but that energy can be produced via renewable electricity.

One more thing:

Where we choose to implement photocatalysis (as in, which processes we select) is important. It might be easier to raise funds from VCs when you pitch CO2 utilization and "e-fuels", but there are far more processes out there that could be enhanced with photocatalysis.


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a bunch of fermentation tanks and pipes

Holiferm is making more biosurfactants

UK-based fermentation start-up, Holiferm, has expanded it's biosurfactant agreement with Sasol to include rhamnolipids and mannosylerythritol lipids (MELs).

Surfactants 101:

Surfactants are a class of molecules known for their ability to decrease the surface tension between substances that don't like to mix. In detergents, the surfactant is what holds water, oil, and dirt in suspension so that they can be removed. There are a bunch of different surfactants out there, each is a little different, and they're often used in combination with one another.

Ok, so what's the deal here?

Typically, surfactant molecules are made from oleochemicals (such as sodium laureth sulfate) and petrochemicals (like these ones Sasol makes). But when we talk about biosurfactants, we're talking about surfactants made by fermenting glucose and/or vegetable oils. Sasol already agreed to help bring Holiferm's sophorolipids to market, and now they are planning on doing the same for rhamnolipids and MELs.

What makes this special:

Making sophorolipids isn't the revolutionary thing here—Holiferm is special because of their gravity separation technology, which allows them to remove the lipids from the bioreactor continuously. That means that they can do continuous fermentation by recycling the yeast cells back to the bioreactor, and adding in however much fresh glucose and/or vegetable oils is required. Which, as you might imagine, makes it cheaper to produce biosurfactants at scale. (To be clear, that doesn't mean this technology will let them produce biosurfactants at the same scale as you can with chemical routes.)

Some more headlines

  • Albemarle switched up its lithium contracts and now is chargin 40% higher prices

  • Technip Energies is going to design Aramco's sulfur recovery unit

  • Ineos, LyondellBasell, TotalEnergies, and Braskem were impacted by a Texas tornado

  • Orion's carbon black now produces less emissions at its plant in Borger, Texas

  • Novozymes is selling its enzymes to Carbios

Molecule of The Day

Today's MOTD is the one and only… bisphenol A.

You've seen the label and you've probably heard a thing or two about bisphenol A (BPA). The mass production of this controversial molecule got started in the 1950s by the condensation two equivalents of phenol (bisphenol) and acetone (A).

Despite BPA's recognition as an artificial estrogen in the 1930s, the molecule's debatable health consequences have been outweighed by its ability to produce useful polycarbonates and vinyl ester resins. It is now known that trace amounts of BPA can be leached from the materials it is transformed into—when they are exposed to hard use (scratching) or high temperatures (your microwave and dishwasher).

In any case, the world now produces nearly 10 million tons of the molecule each year. Most of that production is done by Covestro, SABIC, Chang Chun, Formosa, and LG Chem.

The reboiler

  • Article: If you’ve ever wondered how plastic gets in the ocean this is a good start.

  • Book: How can you expect to understand the chemical industry without knowing its history? Start with Fred Aftalion's introduction.

  • Podcast: Check out this episode on education, talent development, and diversity in the chemical industry.

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Some open roles

Interested in working for a high-growth company in the chemical industry? The Column partners with the most disruptive companies to find the best talent—and that could be you:

  • A post-SPAC company scaling carbon-negative PET is almost done building their first site, and needs an engineer to support research and product development in the lab. (Sacramento, CA)

  • A post-Series D startup is combining enzymatic and metal catalysis to shorten the chemical value chain, and needs a bioprocess engineer for tech transfers and scale-ups. (Houston, TX)

If either (or both) of those roles sound interesting, or if you'd like to be considered for future opportunities, take 2-minutes to join The Column's talent pool.

The bottoms

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