Biobased economy and the right bio-stuff and desperate customers

Episode 7 – The right bio-STUFF and the role of the desperate customer with Paul Bryan

Mar 29, 2022

About this episode

In the first of two episodes with Paul Bryan, formerly of Chevron, Sandia National Laboratories, and the US Department of Energy (DOE), we hear about some of his experiences and reflections on the role of feedstock and its importance in the emerging biobased economy. Paul also reflects on technology transfer opportunities and pathways from his many decades of engineering research experience. In our conversation, we touch on the importance of the right bio-STUFF and the role of the desperate customer.


CB: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. My name is Cameron Begley, and joining me today from the other side of the Pacific Ocean is a long-standing colleague of mine and fellow AFL follower in Paul Bryan. Paul, hello. How are you doing?

PB: Well, Cameron, how are you today?

CB: We’re all good here, thanks. Paul, thanks for making time to join us. We first met when you had the good fortune of being posted in Australia when you were working with Chevron, I recall.

PB:Yes. I was the founding manager of the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance, which was, and still is, an alliance between Chevron, CSIRO, where you were working at the time, and UWA, and Curtin.

CB: Yeah, we found ourselves, I recall Paul’s kindred spirits being chemical engineers in a sea of petrophysicists.

PB: Ah, yes, the alliance, because of the nature of the work that Chevron does in that part of the world, was very heavily oriented toward the upstream lots of geologists and geophysicists and reservoir engineers and drilling engineers and offshore structure engineers and what happens in a whale’s inner ear engineers. But you and I still were interested in processing things.

CB: We were, and from there, Paul, I recall you headed off to the Department of Energy and I guess, that segue is a really interesting one,to understand from Chevron to the Department of Energy and private to government.

PB: Yeah, there was actually a step in between. So enjoyed very much the time in Perth, but actually, from a career standpoint had been a bit of a detour. My goal at Chevron had been to work in biofuels, but the alliance in Perth came up needing someone to manage it. And I had quite a bit more experience in government university industry, collaborative RND than most people at Chevron. And so, I was asked to take that on and I did for a couple of years. But then Chevron founded a biofuels business unit and that was my technical love, and my career aspiration was the biofuels area so much as I did like Perth, I left in 2006 to take on the technology program management for this new business unit.

CB: I do recall that now, Paul. I remember us having a conversation at one of the bio conferences about feedstocks and some of the programs we had within CSIRO, which of course were completely removed from the petroleum side of CSIRO, so no, no-

PB: it was, it was, yeah. It was through you that I first came to understand the unexpected relationship between insects and enzymes.

CB: That’s true, yeah. Yes. And the cornucopia of enzymatic possibilities that lay within the insect kingdom. And something that we discussed a number of times was this notion that the feedstock may be cheap, but it’s not necessarily all in the one place or exactly all the same.

PB: Yeah, well, that’s absolutely true. The tyranny of distance is one problem, but also feedstock coming in bales or chips that are low in density and hard to handle. And here I go to corn as an example. Corn can go from the combine that harvests it into a truck that rolls alongside of the combine, to a grain elevator where the corn is extracted, into a barge on a river down to the Gulf Coast, onto an ocean-going ship down to Argentina, and off to a cattle farmer without ever being touched by human hand. It’s handled like a fluid. It’s pumped and dumped from place-to-place and therefore it makes what they call multimodal transport viable. So, you can use the truck and the barge and the ship to get it where it’s going. Transferring raw biomass that many times, combined with the low energy density, meaning you’re really hauling a lot of air from place-to-place, makes large facilities for processing lignocellulosic biomass impractical. You just can’t gather that much biomass to a single spot with today’s models.

CB: Yeah, which then presents, well, it presents, in some ways, an additional parameter around lignocellulose. That lignocellulose is kind of all the same, but not really. And if you want to run a refinery in the way that we understand refineries today, how does all that feedstock become uniform and suitable for a refining process to operate at scale?

PB: Yeah, that’s a good point, Cameron, and I think I know where you’re heading, but let me take a little bit of a detour first. In a petroleum refinery, a lot of them were built initially close to a particular oil field, and they were built for that crude oil. But as I mentioned earlier, oil fields play out, and so you’re left with this very expensive refinery. It still works just fine, but the oil field you built it for is no longer producing. So many, many years ago, they had to learn to adapt their refineries to a variety of different crude oils, and so they determined a handful of key parameters that distinguished one crude oil from another. So, a given refiner would know which crude oils were best for that refinery, and how to turn the valves and the levers to make it work for a different crude every week or every month as the sources were changed with biomass. First of all, I think it’s fair to say there’s more fundamental difference between soft wood and hardwood and food processing waste and paper making waste – all the different bio feedstocks. But also, we haven’t gotten really good at understanding how to adapt a processing facility to multiple feedstocks. So, yeah, the non-uniformity is a real problem. I think there are a lot of technologies that can respond to that, but not almost in real time, the way a petroleum refinery does. You would have to rework it, maybe different enzymes for deconstructing the biomass, different bugs for fermenting the sugar. There’d have to be a lot of changes that couldn’t happen on the fly because of that non-uniformity.

CB: Yeah. You used to talk about STUFF, the Aspirational STUFF.

PB: Yeah, STUFF was an acronym I came up with when I was at the bioenergy office at the DOE. -what’s now called BTO – the Bioenergy Technology Office. Um, to be clear, it was a unique name, but it wasn’t a unique concept. People had been working on this, including some very good work at the Idaho National Lab. And what STUFF stood for, in my mind, was a Stable Transportable, Uniform Feedstock Format. The DOE, ARPA-E in particular likes nothing as much as it likes catchy acronyms. So, I was hopeful that I was hopeful that bio-STUFF would catch on, but so far, at least, it hasn’t. But the idea was, you know, it would be akin to a corn kernel or a wood pellet, but it would be a pumpable, dumpable format of biomass feedstock that would be stayable, it could be stored in elevators the way corn is stored. It would be transportable because it could be moved from one transportation mode to another very facile. And it would be uniform, at least to the extent possible. I don’t think we’re ever going to make all biomass feedstocks completely uniform, but if we could at least reduce it with crude oil they tend to talk about the specific gravity, the density, and the sulfur content. Those are the big two for crude oil. If we could get the variability in biomass down to a relatively small number of parameters so that a purchaser, ultimately a processor of biomass. Could understand a given shipment and its properties and how it would fit into their facility. If we could reduce the complexity of that a bit, then we would have a uniformity like corn processors have, like crude oil processors have.

CB: I think the notion of standards and a degree of uniformity from which you can trade from would be enormously enabling and would actually address, I think, part of the feedstock challenge with biofuels. What’s holding up that standard?

PB: I think more than anything, time and money. But I will point to an ongoing project at the DOE and in the national labs, the Feedstock Conversion Interface Consortium. They’re working on resolving a lot of those issues. I won’t say that they’re working night and day on STUFF, although there’s undoubtedly some work in that direction. But they’re really working on the question of, if I look at a feedstock, I’ll take an example. This is just one of many, but some people are trying to reduce the amount of lignin in biomass crops because lignin is not readily able to be deconstructed and fermented the way cellulose is. And so, people have worked a lot on making crops that will have less lignin and more cellulose. The question which, the then head of BTO, Jonathan Male, asked was, well, that’s fine, but what’s the value of that at the end of the value chain? Everyone agrees that qualitatively, it’s a good thing to do if your goal is fermenting cellulosic sugars, but what if there’s a yield reduction? What if the crop is less robust because we’ve engineered it to have less lignin? I’m probably going to lose something on the front end. How do I quantify what I’ve gained on the back end? And so, from my perspective, the big goal of this is to be able to connect all through the value chain, the value of an advance in any one segment relative to the others.

CB: Yes, and those tradeoffs are not easily quantified but conceptually easy to talk about, I think.

PB: Yeah, exactly. If you come up with a conversion process, looking at the other end of the value chain that is particularly flexible and adaptable, what’s the value of that? How do you quantify it? It’s nice, of course, but you probably have to give up something. Maybe you need more equipment. Maybe the yield for some feedstocks isn’t quite as high as a less flexible process tailored to them might be. So, the question is, how do we understand all of those relationships in a quantitative way so as to allow us to optimise the value of the whole supply chain from end to end like they have in the oil industry?

CB: Yeah. And that optimisation in the oil industry was not, ah, moment of clarity and solved in, in twelve months.

PB: Oh, absolutely not. It was, it was long and painful. But they’ve had about 150 years to work on it.

CB: Yeah. So, they have had what one might loosely call, a head start.

PB: Yeah, just a little bit. Okay. As a buyer, for want of a better word, at Chevron, looking to build a biofuel, a biomass-based business ultimately, at Chevron and on the buyer side of technology and solutions, then moving to a role at the DOE, which was about investing in the construction or the development of these. And if I might frame it as being then on the sell side, albeit the DOE wasn’t necessarily the seller, what did you see on the tech transfer side and the thinking that went on around how to get, A: investments in technologies into Chevron and reciprocally, about how to build technologies that were suitable for market through the investments you made at DOE. So, two big questions. I don’t mind which one you pick first.

PB: Ah, well, it’s two sides of the same question.

CB: It is – big coin.

PB: Yeah. And from my perspective, I guess an issue that is probably common to lots of tech transfer is that, what I’ll call the supply side for technology and the demand side for technology, are often people that are not so familiar with each other’s worlds. And so, at Chevron, on the buy side, on the demand side for technology, we were often not good at understanding what people on the supply side, on the sell side, what they could and could not do. Meanwhile, they were, generally speaking, not so good at understanding what we wanted, what we needed for these technologies to be viable in our world. So, it’s getting that conversation to take place. And I feel like one of the things I’ve tried to do is to be an interpreter between those two languages. Because I have been on both sides, I feel like I’m very realistic about what’s needed in the commercial fuels’ world. But at the same time, unlike a lot of people with that expertise, I’m very enthusiastic about changing that world to renewable feedstock. So, I’ve tried to learn a lot about the upstream side of biofuels and understanding the downstream side of transportation fuels, and to both identify the best technologies, but also to help the people on both sides of that tech transfer bridge work better together.

CB: Paul, it’s interesting, you’re not the first person we’ve spoken to on Tech Transfer Talk raising that issue of the language gap between the buyer and seller and the alignment of interests, of perspectives and someone having to sit in the middle of that to act as a translator or, I’ve referred to our activities as a Babel Fish, where in goes one language and out comes the appropriate translation. So, it’s interesting that you’ve seen that as well and you’ve acted in that interlocutory role, trying to find that common ground.

PB: I’ll share an anecdote, if you-

CB: Yeah, that’d be great.

PB: And this is one that I only saw from the sidelines. It’s not something I was involved in directly. And I won’t mention either the buyer or the seller here…

CB: Thank you.

PB: Since it’s probably not appropriate to name them, but the seller, in this particular case ,had a biological technique for converting methane to methanol. And the chemical route from methane to methanol involves a lot of expensive equipment, and it pretty much has to operate at a very large scale, whereas methane, of course, is available as biogas at small scale. And this process looked like it could all be in great big plastic tanks and low-pressure equipment. And methanol, of course, can be made into anything. That’s another soapbox I’ll climb on another time. But methanol is the Swiss Army knife of molecules. You get to methanol; you can make whatever you want. This was very exciting. The buyer, who had access to a lot of biogas, was very keen on it. And the scientists were reporting ever increasing approaches to the maximum theoretical yield. They were getting up to 60% to 70% to 80%. And the buyer was getting very excited because the economics looks wonderful. It was really quite late in the process when it became understood by both parties, that 100% theoretical yield was one methanol for every two methane. The buyer had been doing economics based on one-to-one.

CB: Right.

PB: The theoretical biology was not the same as the theoretical for a chemical plant that ideally would get you one methanol per methane. And so suddenly, all the economics got divided by two.

CB: Ah. And looked suddenly half as good.

PB: Yes, and half as good was not good enough. So, it turned out that even 100% of theoretical yield was not going to be economically viable, and yet the project had persisted for quite some time.

CB: Okay, obviously, I had a flash of a thought there, Paul, that half as good wasn’t good enough because I was promised double, and now I’ve ended up with half. But in fact, even at 100% yield, you still couldn’t make the numbers work with this particular approach.

PB: Well, yeah. And in particular, the fact that only one out of two methane became methanol was because the other one became CO2.

CB: Yes.

PB: So, if you looked at the greenhouse gas footprint for the facility, instead of all the methane going to a saleable fuel, half of it had to be vented as CO2. The way I like to look at it is. If those of us who have studied chemistry, and maybe remember some of it, remember that there’s a rule of thumb that says the rate of a chemical reaction doubles for every ten degrees C you increase the temperature.

CB: Yeah.

PB: And that’s a very rough rule. But if you apply that to fermentation versus something like pyrolysis or even gasification, you see that the latter operate at rates about 50 million times faster than biology. So, you have to look at biology and say, well, okay, why am I operating 50 million times slower? And there are reasons for doing that. You just have to understand them. One is that biology is often infinitely selective. A biological process may make one single molecule, that’s quite rare in thermochemistry – you usually get a big mixture you have to separate. The other is you can usually operate in low pressure equipment, adding ambient temperature, which makes it much more realistic to operate at small scale. So, a big high temperature, high pressure, thermochemical operation that could never work at the scale of a lignocellulosic biorefinery. The biological process can work at that scale. It’s important to understand what the advantages each one confers and that they’re not the same. That’s one of those language problems we run into between the fermentation people with their gleaming stainless steel vats that are not necessarily so big, and the refining people with their gigantic thick-walled equipment running at hundreds of degrees centigrade.

CB: Yes, getting really fast reactions and then investing heavily in separating out all the fragments that arise from that very fast reaction. I do remember actually hearing a lecture or paper given, I think it was from Dow, former employer of mine. And the CTO said, you know, the biggest challenge we face is not doing the reactions, it’s doing the post reaction separation, and getting to the level of purity we need in order to drive the rest of our businesses.

PB: Yeah. The business of catalyst design in refining and petrochemicals is always trying to push the selectivity of the reaction toward the desired end product. But thermochemistry is hard to direct precisely to one molecule, whereas for biochemistry, it’s almost standard. In the fermentation world, people talk about TRY: titre, rate and yield.

CB: Yes.

PB: So, the concentration or dilution level that’s titre; a rate is obvious The faster the rate, the smaller your equipment can be and, of course, yield. You have to buy the sugar or make it. And so, the better your yield on sugar, the better off you are. And it’s interesting because it should be TRYS.  Only the biological people never think about S, and the refining and chemical people never think about T. So, it should be titre, rate, yield, and selectivity. The bio people, they don’t even think about selectivity. They take it for granted. I’m going to engineer a metabolic pathway makes the one molecule I want. On the other hand, in the refining industry, they never think about titre because they never dilute anything. Everything’s always 100%. It’s just a question of how many different isomers are there compared to the one I want. So, selectivity is big with them, titre is meaningless and vice versa for the biological world.

CB: That’s a really interesting way of framing the transition or the conversation between the two process engineering disciplines, if I can call it two, one being biological and one being thermochemical or catalytic. It’s a really interesting acronym you’ve offered up there, Paul.

PB: Well, thanks. You just served as my guinea pig for a group of undergraduates at the University of Hawaii.

CB: Oh, okay. I’m happy to help. Generally speaking, Paul, an observation I have, is that we’re very good at starting projects, but really not that good at stopping them.

PB: Well, yeah. This is a philosophical issue that I’ve been aware of ever since managing R&D has been my job function. There was a study years ago, I think it was the Sloan School or possibly Wharton that did a study that said, of R&D projects that get as far as a directly funded effort., not just somebody playing with a test tube in his spare time, but things that actually became a project, a funded project in industry, about one in 150 actually becomes a commercial success. That creates the conundrum that’s puzzled me and I’m sure many other people for a long time. If 149 out of 150 are going to fail, you’d better not spend too much money on those. But if only one in 150 is going to succeed, you’d better not throw that one out.

CB: That’s right.

PB: It’s frustration and misery for the research manager trying to balance that. And of course, no researcher is a good researcher if they’re not devoted to their ideas and persistent. So, the researchers are never going to be the first people to step up and say, yeah, let’s cut my funding.

CB: No, I don’t believe I’ve yet seen that act of take place before me. I’m done here. I need to move on. But the problem that you described, Paul, reminds me strangely of a conversation I have with my daughter when she asked, well, “Why do I have to learn all of this stuff?” well, “because I don’t think I’ll need it.” I said, “Well, the trick is you might not think you need it all, but we don’t know which bits you might need, so therefore, you have to do it all.”


CB: With that one in $150, Paul, describe the one for us.

PB: Well, I’ve seen a number. The first project I worked on at Chevron was a good example and there were good and bad things about the way it was managed, but overall, it was very effective, and it wound up commercialising a technology that, it had been around a while at the bench scale, it wasn’t brand new technology and in fact, it had had a couple of life and death cycles before that time, but it turned out that Chevron had acquired a large styrene business when they acquired Gulf, but they had acquired a large polystyrene business, I should say. But they hadn’t acquired a large source of benzene to feed it. And so, they were beholden to suppliers who could largely name their price in order to get enough benzene to make styrene to make polystyrene. And Chevron had a technology on the shelf, which was later dubbed Aramax,that was very good at making light hydrocarbons, C6 hydrocarbons, into benzene.

CB: Okay.

PB: Now, it had been developed to make benzene for gasoline, and we know what happened to that. For health reasons, the amount of benzene permissible in gasoline was driven down to half a part per million. And so, making benzene for gasoline was a pretty bad idea. Not anyone’s fault. They didn’t know when they started developing it. But this catalyst was sitting around, and it went through another iteration for making benzene for something else that I won’t dwell on here. And it died again. But it was a damn good catalyst for making benzene. And Chevron had some unique intellectual property connected with it. Not all of the IP, but some unique bits. And suddenly Chevron needed a lot of benzene for their chemicals business. And so, this was really put together on a crash priority basis. And I came into Chevron in the middle of this and kind of got thrown in the deep end. But this was a big project. I would say in some senses over managed, but it certainly didn’t lack for attention from the upper echelons. And so, when problems get identified, they got solved. And some of these were very crash priority things, not the pace that R & D is used to working at. But deadlines were set, and deadlines were met. We did something very unique to speed up the piloting. Instead of building a pilot plant, we rented a small refinery, in effect.

CB: Wow.

PB: And we made it worth the owner’s while – we bought some new equipment. As I recall, we basically brought in the feedstock and said, whatever you can sell the product for, it’s yours. But compared to, I think it would have been $50 million in two years to be up and running with a pilot plant. Maybe if everything works as opposed to here’s an operating refinery, we can retrofit it within less than six months and be getting data. So, to me, that was a really novel and effective way to get the R & D done. And then the other thing that we did is, in the midst of this, along came another company, I don’t think it’s any secret, but I won’t mention them anyway, but along came another company that was at least as desperate for benzene as we were, and we said, the heck with it, we’ll build their plant first. And. You know, they’re here. They’re here. They’ve got their checkbooks out. Let’s do that. And so, we basically skipped ahead on some of what was necessary to install the plant at Chevron by installing it with this other company. And so there were a lot of innovative things that were done from a research perspective. And it goes back to one of my friends who has lots of pithy sayings about the world of R & D. One of his sayings that applied here is that, in technology transfer, nothing beats a desperate customer.

CB; Oh, what a terrific thought.

PB: Steve, that’s a shout out to you.

CB: Oh, what a terrific thought. Nothing beats a desperate customer. And in the first instance here, the desperate customer was Chevron.

PB: Exactly.

CB: And then another turned up, which afforded Chevron, I guess, a pathway to not only derisking what they were doing, but also financially buffering against what they were doing.

PB: Absolutely. It was a win all around. So I guess maybe Steve was wrong. The one thing better than a desperate customer is two desperate customers. That’s right.

CB: Yes. I suspect that’s a geometric sequence. Not arithmetic, actually. But the other interesting points, though, Paul, that’s a terrific story, by the way, because what really fascinates me is that you had high level sponsorship within your organisation, really critical, and the other thing that struck me about that was the idea of timing, that you had it, but circumstances change. Your regulatory circumstances externality. Right. Put it on the shelf. Another opportunity came that didn’t work out. We don’t know why. That’s okay. Back on the shelf. But then the time came.

PB: Yeah. The other thing I’d point out, I’m thinking of other features that are maybe worth teasing out. The other thing about this project was, I had access to a lot of the previous work and the reports and things, and I sometimes found the reporting requirements at Chevron Research to be a bit tedious. But I’ll tell you, a lot of these people had moved on. They had left the company, they were doing other things. And the fact that the project, both times it was shelved had been shelved with care and with documentation, meant that when the world changed and suddenly there was a place in it for this catalyst, there was all this rich trove of information, really exhaustive documentation of what had been done. We didn’t have to start from a blank piece of paper.

CB: And again, a conversation I’ve had privately about the value of lab books and thorough notetaking. But also so I infer from that, Paul, the hidden value of knowing what doesn’t work.

PB: It’s very important to document these things. It’s not important in a 30 minutes presentation to try to tell somebody all of them.

CB: No, that’s true. But in terms of building technology, the learning of what not works along the way has an intrinsic value, a value in terms of time saved in the future and resources. Money saved, not running down streets with dead ends.

PB: Yeah, it’s not the sexy part of research to fail and then to document the failures as well as the successes. But it is important if you’re ultimately going to get the full value out of all the time and money that’s been spent.

CB: Paul, that’s been terrific talking with you about the right bio stuff and the role of the desperate customer. We’re looking forward to having you back soon to talk more about feedstock production, refinery processes and a little bit about federal policies.

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