The Jesus Molecule

The Coca-Cola Company invests in Gevo, Virent and Avantium partnerships in the race to develop renewable plastic bottling entirely from renewables.

By JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

JesusThere’s been an awful lot of press recently about progress in the search for the God particle. That’s the subatomic Higgs Boson — a key, but as yet undetected, anchor in the standard model of the universe. Then there’s the Jesus molecule. As in, “Kind Lord Jesus in Heaven, grant me an affordable way to make one of those.”

It’s renewable PX, also known as your friend, paraxylene — a key, but as yet undiscovered at an affordable cost, anchor in the production of plastic bottles entirely from renewables. (PX also accidentally looks not entirely unlike the Chi-Rho, one of the earliest symbols for Jesus Christ.)

That’s the story for Main Street. Here’s the story for Wall Street. It’s the key molecule to unlocking a global market for renewables of 54 million metric tons, and an annual trade of $100 billion.

The search for renewable PX took a new twist in New York when the Coca-Cola Company turned on the klieg lights to announce multi-million-dollar investments, and partnership agreements with Gevo, Virent and Avantium. The goal? To accelerate development of the first commercial solution for its next-generation PlantBottle packaging, using renewable PX.

Since the packaging was introduced in 2009, the company has already distributed more than 10 billion first-generation PlantBottle packages in 20 countries worldwide, with up to 30 percent renewable content. With this announcement, Coke aims for 100 percent plant-based packaging, at scale, by mid-decade.

The goal with each of these three agreements is to ensure that the companies:

  1. Produce the materials that Coke needs.
  2. Produce them in big quantities.
  3. And as soon as possible, please.

Coke & its Three Renewable PET Shops

What is Coke plastic bottling? It is a material called PET or polyethylene terephthalate for you Biofuels Digest purists. (Say that three times fast.) For now, key in on that, polyethylene, then that, ethylene. It’s a form of polyester that is see-through and an excellent barrier material. Not much gets through these little molecules.

Accordingly, it’s become the third most widely produced polymer in the world, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PET makes up about 20 percent of the world’s polymer production and about 30 percent of that PET goes into making plastic bottles. In short, Coke and Pepsi have a big stake in a big game.

Over the past few years, both companies have been working flat-out to produce a plastic bottle made entirely from renewables. Two years ago, Coke came out with its first-gen PlantBottle technology.

OK, here’s where the story gets a little technical, so grab a snack and a pencil. To make a partially renewable PET, Coke is using about 30 percent mono-ethylene glycol (MEG), which it is making from biomass already. The other 70 percent comes from purified terephthalic acid (PTA). In other words, MEG+PTA = plastic bottle.

To date, the company is still using traditional fossil materials for the PTA. That’s where Coke’s announcement makes waves.

OK, how do you make PTA from renewables? Well, to make PTA, you have to make something called paraxylene. It’s the principal precursor. In the industry, it’s known as PX. And bottle production chews up about 98 percent of global paraxylene production each year. (Read this, and then forget it: Basically, it’s a benzene ring, with a pair of methyl molecules attached to it.) What you need to know is that PX is a hydrocarbon.

Why not just use, say, polyethylene? Good news, Coke does, in Odwalla juice products. Works for juice in the fridge. Does not work for products outside of the fridge, especially carbonated ones.

What about some other molecules? Well, there’s PEF. That’s a new bio-plastic that Avantium makes, using its YXY chemical catalytic technology. Hence, Coke’s interest in Avantium.

First milestones in that agreement include the startup of an Avantium PEF pilot plant, officially opened on December 8th in Geleen, Netherlands. It is expected that other large co-development partners will join in early 2012.

Back to PX, then.

The Tip-Offs

OK, turns out that, according to all of the 30 or so companies that Coca-Cola looked at, Virent and Gevo had the best available technology (available for co-development, that is) that can make paraxylene. That’s something that several astute Biofuels Digest readers picked up at the time of Gevo’s last analyst presentation: “Production ramp on pace. The retrofit of Gevo’s first commercial plant in Luverne remains on track for a 1H12 startup. The 500,000 liter/year plant at the South Hampton facility should come online by year-end, initially producing jet fuel, and later, gasoline and paraxylene (for PET applications) to support certification processes. Gevo expects to receive ASTM certification for its jet fuel in 2013. Management affirmed the target of 350 million gallons in 2015, unchanged from the IPO.”

In fact, back in March, it had already announced a first paraxylene production deal.

Coca-ColaBack in July, Virent tipped its hand as well: “Virent says that producing PET from waste, such as corn stover and pine residuals, is more difficult than from sugars, but that it can be done. The company makes paraxylene, a PET feedstock, from sugars. Expectations are that its commercial-scale facility will be online in late 2014.”

As far back as June, Biofuels Digest readers had an early tip from Avantium:

“Avantium is building a pilot plant to demonstrate its YXY technology, which enables the cost-effective production of Furanics building blocks for green materials and fuels. This will facilitate the development and commercialization of Avantium’s next-generation polyester: PEF … Avantium has demonstrated that PEF has numerous superior properties when compared with PET, including lower permeability of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water, and an enhanced ability to withstand heat.”

The Business Case

Here’s the good news, from our report last June, on paraxylene and its opportunities: “In the case of a Gevo-retrofitted plant, the bio-refiner can produce biobutanol plus co-products, or paraxylene and the same co-products, to give one example. Turns out, in renewable fuels, as well as elsewhere, it takes two (products) to tango. Pricing moves around in these volatile markets, but as a rule of thumb, paraxylene prices hover around a 25 percent premium to ethanol (after taking into account the lower yields of isobutanol per ton of feedstock). PET sells for roughly a 125 percent premium.”

Bottom line: You can make good money in this market. Things, as it turns out, do go better with Coke.

What’s a Pepsi to do? Well, Pepsi hasn’t tipped its hand, except last March, the company declared that it had its own solution to produce renewable PET. The company recently said that it was planning a pilot run of up to 200,000 bottles using the new process, but no one is sure when it will reach commercial scale, or even if the Pepsi process will be commercially feasible.

In Coke’s case, it is looking like between 2014 and 2015.

View Coca-Cola’s actual “I’d like to teach the world to sing” commercial, in a 1970s holiday incarnation, here.

Copyright 2012; Biofuels Digest