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BioFPR Interviews

Peter Williams – Chief Executive Officer, INEOS Bio
The key to your technology platform is your bacterial biocatalyst. How does this differ from conventional catalysts?

Actually, I’d say there are two keys to the platform, but let’s start with the fermentation side: it’s a fast fermentation with a biocatalyst in there, but it’s not really what we’d normally call a catalyst, it’s a bacteria, so it’s a living organism, and we grow it in the reactor. So we don’t provide the reactor with catalyst materials, we provide it with the bacteria, which we nurture, make sure it grows effectively, and that does the chemistry for us.

And the second feature, or benefit, that’s very important for our technology, and it’s a distinctive benefit, is the fact that the front end is a gasification system that can accept a very wide range of carbon feedstocks. So what that allows us to do is bring the full range of feedstocks – all the biomass feedstocks, vegetative waste, municipal solid waste, we could even put coal in there if we wanted to, or we could put shredded rubber tyres, or auto shredder waste: they’re not biomass substrates, but they’ll all go into the gasifier if we wanted to put them in there – and the gasifier converts that wide range of substrates into a common intermediate, synthesis gas, which contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen. And so the combination of a front end that’s got a very wide acceptance range and this very selective bug we have in our reactor makes it a very attractive process for us.

So you changed everything from this range of biomass into one specific ingredient.

Yes, whichever source of biomass we use it goes into this one common intermediate, synthesis gas, which is then used by our organism and converted. And in the process of using that the synthesis gas, the food for the organism, as I guess you could call it, it produces a product for us called ethanol, and that’s where the bioethanol comes from.

Given this wide feed flexibility and the wide source of feedstock, such as municipal solid waste, does that effectively represent the end of the food versus fuel debate?

Well for us, it takes us completely away from any food versus fuel debate, because we’re not interfering with the food chain, we’re taking waste materials. We’re not looking to intervene in food based materials at all. We’ll take food waste, but that’s a different proposition. So it takes that argument away. And it also takes land use arguments away. There’s a lot of discussion about changing land use to supply the biofuels industry for example, but for us, because we’re using waste materials, we’re actually latching onto an infrastructure that exists today for collecting waste. It has to be done. And what we’re saying is, instead of dealing with it in your normal way, maybe into landfill, deal with it by supplying it to our process and make something more useful, like bioethanol for cars.

It almost seems a no-brainer that this should be the future of biofuels.

We think this can make a really strong contribution to biofuels. Our economics are in a good place – I mean there are two issues with biofuels: one is the technology issue of being able to use biomass – convert it effectively - and secondly the economics of the conversion. And we can deal with both those issues: we’ve got an economic process that accepts a wide range of biomass feedstocks, and that’s highly attractive for us. So we think we can make a strong contribution with this technology.

It’s not going to be the only technology, and it’s not going to be the only energy and fuel solution, you must understand that. We want the industry to be successful as a whole, and for that we need several players, in order for it to grow successfully. But we feel we are in a good position to make a very strong contribution.

You emphasize the importance of a localised approach.Talking about economics there, presumably that’s one of the main advantages of that:what are the other benefits of a localised approach?

What it changes is the mindset with regard to how you can make fuel and energy. The current mindset is that you build very large installations, that may or may not be around urban populations, based on coal, for example, or you can import oil, and so on. This approach takes us away from that sort of mindset into a position where the feedstock we want to use is created by the community, because it’s waste material. And we’re all contributing to that waste development. So it changes the mindset as to how you provide for fuel and energy. And that obviously leads to the position where you’re now trying to take advantage of materials in the local community which lends you a different view with regard to the scale that you want to build the technology at. Because then you build it around the community, using community waste, and using maybe other materials that are coming into that community as to form an economic unit that can serve that community.

Also, and this is an important point, it benefits the broader economics of the local community. As a petrochemical company we have a very clear set of views on how we look at petrochemical process economics. But in the community there are other benefits that you bring along. So the economic equation is quite different: it’s about jobs, it’s about creating a sustainable environment for people to live in, as well as providing the ethanol and the energy out of the process itself. It’s about dealing with waste in a much more benign way, and about hopefully giving the community a sense that they’re improving their environmental footprint, as well, by taking this sort of approach which, as other people have calculated, produces 100% greenhouse gas savings, when ethanol from biomass is used instead of gasoline from fossil fuel sources.

Based on this, on the INEOS Bio website, it’s suggested that there could be an INEOS Bio plant in every major city of the world. Is that the long term goal?

It is, because now we want to deploy the technology, and we’ve got a pretty flexible business model for how we can do that. And the feedstock that we think we can contribute to dealing with is actually in the communities, so why not have an INEOS Bio plant in every community? There’ll be certain size definitions, and other considerations to make, but, why not? And that’s a solution we think we can help bring to a local area. And I think we’re seeing that in our discussions with local people in the Vero Beach area now, who are quite attracted to the prospect of taking their waste and seeing it returned as a useful product. And I think it can be an attractive proposition for all communities.

Speaking of Vero Beach, you broke ground there in February of 2011, and is that going online later this year?

It’s in commissioning now.

When you say commissioning…?

Taking hold of the equipment as built, and then starting it up, making sure it works safely and properly. There are several unit processes: we have gasification, we have fermentation, we have distillation, and we have power generation. We make sure each of those works in its own right first of all, and then we run the whole thing together. And all the work you need to do to make sure that is safely and effectively done is what we call commissioning.

The construction has taken place in 15 months and we’ve now started our commissioning activities. A couple of little things still need to be completed, but it’s essentially done. So the commissioning is being done right now, we’re in that phase, and will be continued through this quarter, and in the second half of the year we’ll be making ethanol.

Finally, what’s next?

More of the same. We have other projects in mind. We’d like to build a project in North East England, in Seal Sands, on one of our sites there. We’re working with a number of potential partners now on projects that they’re interested in, around the world. It’s clearly a technology and an approach that attracts worldwide interest. We’re already a global company, and in this area we’re clearly seeing a global opportunity., And if you look at the balance of our project pipeline, there are some in the US, and quite a number in other places round the world as well. That’s the next step for us, to try and deliver this technology globally.