It’s A Nano World

For the uninitiated, “nanotechnology” refers to the science of the very small, engineering particles and their corresponding materials at the nanometer scale.  For a sense of perspective, at one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer is about 1/60,000 of the width of a human hair, so we’re talking engineering not just at the microscopic scale, but the electron-microscopic scale.

Why bother?  Because researchers from across a number of disciplines have discovered that engineering particles at such minute scale can change the fundamental performance characteristics of the material.  You want a material that captures a certain wavelength of light, or transmits a certain frequency of energy?  You just might be able to obtain it by tweaking currently available materials at the nanoscale, to change the “morphology” (think texture) of the particles so that they behave in the desired way.

The nano-world is sometimes mind-bending.  For instance, with enough wrinkles, folds or pockets, a particle with the volume of a grain of sand can have a surface area much greater than that of a basketball.  When you’re able to play topological tricks like this, amazing performance improvements in even the most basic stuff can be achieved.

As this capability has been increasingly revealed in the past decade or so, more and more acadmic research and an increasing number of companies are investigating how nano-engineering can improve the performance of all sorts of things.  This is especially true for the cleantech arena. 

Product innovation ranges across the map:  nanomaterials optimized for increased performance of membranes for fuel cells and cathodes for batteries, enhanced thermal insulation for building materials, higher capacity of contaminant capture from water, and on and on and on.

At few weeks ago, as the investment banking firm Livingston Securities convened their 7th Annual Nanotechnology Conference in New York City, Crystal Research Associates released a new report, entitled “Nanotechnology and the Built Environment:  The Transition to Green Infrastructure”.  This document profiles some of the seemingly-mature industrial sectors that are being transformed by nanotechnology, including some of the biggest corporations in the world such as GE (NYSE: GE), BASF (Deutsche:  BAS), Siemens (NYSE:  SIE) and Honeywell (NYSE:  HON) working on some of the smallest scales imaginable.

The report covers many of the sectors you’d expect to be revolutionized by materials enhancements, such as photovoltaics and lighting, but also touches on a couple of real surprises.  For instance, consider NanoSteel – a company that is commercializing metallic coating technology developed at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the performance of structural metals under challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperature or corrosion.

In addition to NanoSteel, other presenters at Livingston’s nanotech conference that particularly piqued my personal interest included Siluria (developing an approach to convert methane into ethylene, thereby reducing the requirement for petroleum to make plastics) and QM Power (offering a new basic design of motors and generators promising higher-efficiencies).

It’s always interesting to go to events such as this to get exposed to companies working under the radar screen that are aiming to achieve fascinating innovations, sometimes in the most mundane or obscure areas.  Even if not all these companies will ultimately be successful, either in serving customer needs or in generating good returns to investors, it’s heartening to note the degree and scope of creative disruption that continues to seethe in our world of incredible challenges, turbulence and pessimism/cynicism. 

Many players thinking big about the future are moving small, as small as possible.

The Story of Ethylene… now starring natural gas

It’s a $160 billion a year market you’ve probably never heard of.

Ethylene, the intermediary chemical compound from which popular plastics and many other high value products are derived, has traditionally been made in the petroleum industry via steam cracking, an energy- and carbon-intensive process. It’s the most produced organic compound in the world; annual global production is in the hundreds of millions of tons. To meet ever-increasing demand, production facilities are being added globally, particularly in the Persian Gulf and China.

The problem is, it’s complicated and expensive to make ethylene. And, or course, petroleum reserves are waning.

For decades, chemical engineers have been pursuing cost effective ways to make this key industrial compound from other things. Now, a handful of companies think they’re honing in on ways to make ethylene from the methane in natural gas with commercially viable processes.

If making ethylene from methane turns out to be possible at scale, it could be a watershed for the chemical and petroleum industries. Ethylene from methane could potentially be much less expensive, given that natural gas is one-fifth the price of oil. And its supply could be more sustainable, given the massive and growing size of natural gas reserves.

The methane conversion space is more crowded than one might expect. Kachan & Co. recently performed a consulting project for a client that uncovered and profiled 24 announced and stealth mode startups in this space, along with 19 blue chip companies and 6 universities and government labs. The project involved interviews with company and research personnel, a review of venture investment data, interviews with investors and trade organizations, an intellectual property patent search and a literature review that included media and scientific sources.

Here are some of the more interesting of the 24 small organizations we found at the forefront of methane-to-ethylene commercialization today:

Co. Name HQ Website Type Dev. Stage Tech Description Partners or Alliances Investors
Carbon Sciences Santa Barbara, California Public Experimental phase Reforming methane to syngas to fuel using advanced catalysts. Emerging Fuels Technology (EFT) & University of Saskatchewan N.A.
Fertilizer Research Institute Pulawy, Poland  Polish national research lab Unknown Currently operating a pilot methane to ethylene facility based on oxidative coupling of methane (OCM). Governmental facility N.A.
LanzaTech Auckland, New Zealand Private Prototyping, commercialization in 2013 Gas fermentation process that produces both fuels and high-value chemicals from low-cost resources such as steam-reformed methane. N.A. Series A investment from an investor consortium led by Khosla Ventures; Series B financing led by Qiming Ventures.
Quantiam Technologies Alberta, Canada Private Research & development  Working on a feasibility study on a novel catalyst for methane conversion. BASF, IRAP BASF ($3M), Ursataur Capital Management ($3M), Small investors ($2.3M)
Siluria Technologies San Francisco, California Private Research & development A “revolutionary approach combining the latest developments in nanomaterial science, biotechnology and chemical engineering.” New type of oxidative coupling of methane (OCM) process. None disclosed Wellcome Trust, Alloy Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Altitude Life Science Ventures, Lux Capital, Presidio Ventures. $13.3M Series A. $20M Series B.

Excerpt from private Kachan & Co. study of 24 methane to ethylene companies, October 2011

The companies we found worldwide pursing methane-to-ethylene arranged themselves into rough groupings by type:

  • IP Provider: Develops IP related to methane-to-ethylene, does not go beyond IP phase
  • Technology Provider: Developed a technology and a prototype, intend to license to other companies (e.g. Carbon Sciences)
  • Application Provider: Developed a technology, and sells engineering services to build facilities (e.g. BCCK) or manufacture technology (e.g. Rentech)
  • Technology Operator: Goes beyond the licensing and directly operates facilities (e.g. CompactGTL)

Global oil and gas majors have been working on the challenge of methane to ethylene for years themselves, with dozens of patents issued. But none have cracked the code of profitable commercial scale production.

Global oil majors and number of patents in converting methane to ethylene

Chevron 80
Exxon Mobil 72
Shell 54
BP 29
Nippon Oil 14
Innospec 10
Lubrizol 9
Celanese 7
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation 5
Total Raffinage 5
General Electric 5
Honeywell 3
Cosmo Oil 3
Eni S.p.A. 3

Source: IP Checkups, October 2011

High value chemicals like ethylene from natural gas would be even more compelling if the gas was derived from renewable, biological sources, and not from conventional reserves or fracking, as today. Small volumes of renewable methane are available today from anaerobic digestion and landfill gas. But large volumes are promised by a new wave of companies commercializing thermal gasification and other approaches to creating bio natural gas from wood waste and other widely available feedstocks (see the Kachan report The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity).

Complicated science aside, it won’t be easy for companies to bring methane to ethylene innovations to scale. Ethylene and other high value chemicals today are an oligopoly, a market hard to crack. Any new process will likely need to be championed by one of today’s 5 big suppliers as a partner to enter the market. Then there’s the culture clash between small, fast-moving venture backed companies seeking quick exists and the notoriously slow, conservative petroleum and chemical industries.

But those challenges are likely surmountable, according to the bets that are being made by name brand cleantech venture backers of the companies in this space.

Originally published here. Reproduced by permission.