The Greening (Dao) of Dow, Part 1

For the carbon yin, a clean-tech yang: Dow and its business units seek to balance cost attributes in the fossil world with sustainable attributes from the clean world.

By JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

Yin YangI forget which friend told me that, in the misty dawn of time, God in his infinite wisdom decided to make a paradise to demonstrate all the wondrous things he could do in planetary construction, so he made Earth. Then, he became concerned that Earth was so beautiful that none of his angels would want to live in heaven. So he made earthlings.

Ah, earthlings. Technology changing every second, brains evolving at, well, evolutionary pace. So, here we are, digging up stuff out of the ground and burning it, trying to stay warm, well-fed, technologically up to date, financially secure or what have you.

So we don’t live in a perfect world, where everyone does sustainable things, or good things — but we have to live in the world that is. And so there is the black carbon yin, balanced with clean-tech’s yang.

It’s a tough task and it falls, to a great extent, on corporations. Organizations founded primarily to make money, not to spread goodness and light. Whose performance is usually measured in a price/earnings ratio rather than by sustainability indexes, which abound, but are generally about as visible to the investment community as the Higgs boson. You see, mutual fund quarterly statements, like golf scorecards, have no pictures.

They try, corporations do. Lord knows they try. People who say that they don’t don’t spend any time inside them. They are limited by knowledge, by access to capital, by the shackles of quarterly earnings. But, by and large, slowly but surely, they are figuring out ways to make green work.

Dow in the Lens

Which brings us to Dow, one of the five largest chemical companies in the world — and one which has a big hand in agriculture biotech through its Dow AgroScience unit.

How green is Dow? Gettin’ there — moving steadily, both through product innovation and external investment.

The story goes back some time, at least to the formation of Cargill Dow — now NatureWorks — a joint venture that Dow eventually left to Cargill as Dow’s views on the sector changed with the evolution of that technology. The vision was simply to bring biotechnology to the production of chemicals, plastics and everyday products, and thereby to make them more sustainable and possibly, as oil prices rose, more affordable. Certainly, it was hoped less volatile.

Along the way, the company started making strategic investments, including an investment through Dow Chemical in Genomatica, a pure-play renewable chemicals company focused, initially, on transformative ways of making low-cost 1,4-Butanediol (BDO) using synthetic biology.

Fast Forward to Adventures in Algae

Back in 2010, Algenol Biofuels and Dow Chemical announced that they would partner to construct a $50 million pilot algae biofuels plant in Freeport, TX — a project that would eventually switch to Florida. The plant would be located with Dow’s existing chemicals complex and would supply CO2, as well as land for the pilot algae facility. Dow said that it was interested in Algenol’s ability to use algae to produce ethanol, which could be used as a base for making ethylene, which is, in turn, a feedstock for many types of chemicals.

But there would be more that year. Right after Christmas, Dow Chemical announced plans to build a propylene glycol (PG) plant in Map Ta Phut, Thailand, with a production capacity of up to 150 KTA. The new PG facility would utilize propylene oxide (PO) derived from the new sustainable hydrogen-peroxide-to-propylene-oxide (HPPO) technology, developed jointly by Dow and BASF SE.

2011: A Breakout Year

2011 opened fast and furious. In March, Solazyme and Dow Chemical announced a joint development agreement and a letter of intent with Dow Chemical to use Solazyme’s algal oils in next-generation bio-based dielectric insulating fluids key to transformers and other electrical applications. The non–binding letter of interest provided that Dow may obtain up to 20 million gallons of Solazyme’s oils for use in dielectric insulating fluids and other industrial applications in 2013, and up to 60 million gallons in 2015.

At the time, we wrote: “We don’t expect that this will be the last word on collaboration with Dow either. Stay tuned.”


Dow Chemical & OPX Biotechnologies Collaborate

By spring, Dow Chemical was taking it to the next level when it and OPX Biotechnologies announced that they would collaborate to develop an industrial-scale process for the production of bio-based acrylic acid from renewable feedstocks.

Summer saw the company’s attention turn to Brazil. In August, Dow Chemical and Mitsui announced a 50/50 joint venture in prospect (it would be finalized by March) to produce polyethylene and DOWLEXT polyethylene resins from sugarcane ethanol. Mitsui would hold 50 percent of Dow’s operation in Santa Vitoria, Minas Gerais with ethanol production eventually leading to PE production by 2015.

The announcement brought to a close a long search by Dow for a joint venture partner for the Usina Santa Vitoria project. Dow has originally formed a 50/50 partnership with Crystalsev, the ethanol distribution arm that was wound up in 2009, after majority owner Santelisa Vale sold itself to Louis Dreyfus. The project originally commenced back in 2007.

Later in the year, Dow broadened its green initiatives when it revealed a soy-oil containing acoustical foam formulation with significant renewable content. Named Betafoam Renue, the new formulation is now in trials with a major North American original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and commercialization is expected by December. The foam replaces baffles traditionally used in vehicle cavities and is also low density to reduce overall vehicle weight. This was done within an unprecedented nine-month timeframe and a grant from the United Soybean Board.

Please tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! Copyright 2012; Biofuels Digest