Introducing Global Bioenergies

I am still waiting for Dow Chemical officials to answer my questions regarding their announcement today about their joint venture with Mitsui on sugarcane-based plastics in Brazil.

In the meantime, let’s talk about France-based Global Bioenergies, which also announced today their collaboration with Poland-based rubber manufacturer Synthos on the development and commercialization of bio-based butadiene for rubber manufacture.

Global Bioenergies said it will receive from Synthos R&D funding, multi-million euro development fees and royalty payments on sales of bio-butadiene for the manufacturing of rubber. Synthos also plunked EUR1.4m ($1.98m) for a 3.6% stake in Global Bioenergies.

Butadiene is a one of the major building blocks on rubber manufacture where 10m tonnes/year are used to produce synthetic rubber (accounting for 2/3 of total butadiene use). The rest are used to produce nylon, latices, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastics and other polymers. Global Bioenergies estimates current global butadiene market at $30bn and noted that spot price has recently rocketed to over $3/kg.

For more on why butadiene market has been increasingly tight, read this February post about the C4 challenge on  ICIS’ Asian Chemicals Connection blog.

Back to Global Bioenergies…so what is this company all about?

The blog first heard of the company’s successful development of bio-isobutene in October last year but just began investigating when Global Bioenergies filed for its own IPO in Paris’ NYSE Alternext stock market (part of Euronext) in June, where it was able to raised EUR6.6m (around $9.3m).

According to Thomas Buhl, Global Bioenergies’ head of business development, most of the IPO funding will be used to industrialize their bio-isobutene production process. Part will also be used to replicate their success on isobutene on other molecules, bio-propylene being their next target (although at this point, the company might now be busy on bio-butadiene – but this is just my opinion…).

Global Bioenergies was founded in 2008 by Marc Delcourt, a biotech veteran (according to sources) and Philippe Marliere who is reportedly a pioneer in the domain of synthetic biology. The company is based in Evry, south of Paris, and employs a staff of around 20 mostly involved in R&D.

The company’s target platform molecules are in light olefins namely isobutene, propene, ethene, linear butenes, isoprene, butadiene. The company said this market exceeds $200bn in value. As mentioned, Global Bioenergies’ first target is isobutene because it is the only molecule, according to Buhl, that has fuel applications (dimerization to iso-octane) and also addresses the rubber market (butyl rubber and isobutene converted to isoprene).

“Global Bioenergies has achieved a laboratory prototype producing isobutene and is now moving towards industrialization of the process, the next step consisting in performing tests in a pilot plant and further optimizing the process (enzyme engineering, strain engineering,..). The company is not yet producing isobutene at quantities usable for commercial applications.” – Buhl

Right now, the only companies developing bio-isobutene (as far as the blog knows) is Gevo/Lanxess. I’ve interviewed both for my bio-based rubber chemicals article, which will come out in August 1 on ICIS Chemical Business.

According to Global Bioenergies, isobutene has a present market of about $15bn but is limited by the complex access of the molecule from oil cracking. Isobutene is a starting material for various intermediates and final products including in synthetic rubber manufacture and fuel (iso-octane).

The company said it has engineered bacterium strains that convert glucose to isobutene via artificial metabolic pathway that passes by 3-hydroxy-isovalerate (I’m not a chemist so pls. don’t ask me anything about this pathway). Maybe this video will enlighten those who speak French (wish it has caption in English though…)

The company has now entered the second phase of its bio-isobutene development and plans to optimize the process and construct a pilot laboratory to further develop the fermentation process and gas treatment process. Milestones expected for its bio-isobutene would be to have an industrial pilot plant (about 10 tonnes/year capacity) to test its isobutene process by 2013, a demonstration plant by 2015 and start of commercial production by 2017/18.

I tried to translate some of the text in its IPO prospectus from French to English and it noted that the only competition it has on bio-isobutene is Gevo and its partner Lanxess, although Global Bioenergies said that Lanxess’ indirect process would be more energy and cost-intensive than their direct fermentative route to produce isobutene.

“Additionally, our process has the advantage that the microorganism produces a gas, which spontaneously evaporates from the liquid production medium, thereby not accumulating and reaching toxic concentrations for the producing microorganism.” – Buhl

In July 5, Global Bioenergies was able to get a new funding of around EUR 475,000 from French innovation agency OSEO to help its bio-isobutene project. The company’s business strategy is to grant application-specific licenses such as bio-isobutene for butyl rubber application. Production and marketing would then be carried out by those licensees that are already producing or consuming isobutene today, said Buhl.

“Global Bioenergies is looking for licensing partners in the rubber/tire domain interested in converting our isobutene into butyl rubber or isoprene. It will be our responsibility to provide a production process yielding isobutene with the specifications such as in terms of purity required by the partner.” – Buhl

The company said it’s process as of today is already cost-competitive at the predicted production yields. Buhl added that the projected oil price increase in the next few years in addition to fast-development in fermentation technologies and biomass feedstock availability will further result in lower cost for any fermentation processing as opposed to petroleum oil-based chemical production.

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