Oil derrick in field of canola plants

Episode 28 – Skyfill and unsustainable sustainability with Jim Lane

Nov 30, 2023

In this episode, I have the great pleasure of having our first omnipresent guest, Jim Lane, who is everywhere within the biobased economy with his leading daily publication The Digest. In the midst of driving the Bold Goals Initiative, catalysed by the US Inflation Reduction Act, and running the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference (ABLC), we catch up with Jim on current perspectives on the bioeconomy and a little soothsaying on what the next few years might look like.

We take a broad tour across ethanol, bio and renewable diesel, biochemicals, biomaterials and hydrogen. We briefly examine the origins of the current North American bioeconomy from the mid-00’s, reflecting on the drive for employment, energy security and emissions reduction and how the financial crash of 2008 and the discovery of shale gas affected early growth.

Through our discussions Jim introduces a concept of ‘Skyfill’, to describe carbon emissions (akin to Landfill for material waste) and reflects on the need for transparent mechanisms for dealing with carbon and the inevitable unaffordability of government subsidies currently seeking to drive industrial and consumer behavioural change. Jim refers to this situation as ‘unsustainability in the name of sustainability’!

We touch on feedstocks and the lack of abundance of what we need, arguing we have too many sugars and too few oils from which to drive the industrial bioeconomy. Jim reflects on a little industrial history as we discuss the current energy and chemical market structures and how some thought should be given to not creating future strong oligopolies when it is hard to anticipate what the right mix of technology solutions might be. In discussing transport, while I suggested thermodynamic efficiency should be the key driver, Jim points to economics and consumer preferences that will drive consumer behaviour, particularly in transport (energy) markets.

We close by traversing the world of biopolymers, the challenges around no renewable chemicals standards (unlike fuels), how drop in molecular equivalent products are playing out against their functional equivalents (or new polymers) in the market and the respective challenges in delivering functional, cost-in-use competitive products. Jim concludes with some optimism, noting that we need to grow faster to meet the carbon targets being set by governments and the private sector.

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