Jeff MacDonald, CEO of EcoSynthetix, makes a case for removing political barriers to clean-tech and suggests priorities for corn crop usage should shift from food and ethanol production towards the creation of bio-based chemicals.
I am a self-declared tree-hugger and CEO of a renewable products company arguing against the use of renewable fuel. What? Please hear me out. I am simply asking that we take heed of data and be more thoughtful in our application of renewable solutions.
The petrochemical industry has powered a good deal of the world’s economic growth for the past century. A stream of chemical innovations has brought utility to businesses and people for decades. As we now evaluate the impact of these products and processes on climate change and our future, the urgency for change to better solutions is clear.
It is also clear that the timelines for the development and implementation of new solutions dictate that we will need oil for decades to come. While we implement the earliest and most impactful renewable solutions, we also need to recognize applications where the unique properties of certain petrochemicals make them least replaceable in the short term.
“We need to remove barriers that slow or block the implementation of climate positive solutions.”
What prevents us from putting a new renewable product into practical use? Sometimes these products fail to meet required performance; laboratory success often fails to translate at scale economically. Incumbent chemistries in established industries often benefit from a resistance to change, and there is certainly a cost to change. Politics can also play a role in protecting regional interests, which can either benefit or hinder new technologies.
Despite these challenges, successful renewable products can, and do, breakthrough.
EcoSynthetix, a renewable chemistry company based in Ontario, Canada has benefitted from having blue chip industrial partners committed to safer, lower carbon solutions, and a strong balance sheet to support the long timelines involved in their development and implementation. The company has successfully commercialized bio-based chemicals, which are mainly derived from corn, for the pulp and paper, wood products, and personal care industries.
Invariably, as these new products progress to commercialization, they are subject to environmental, social and governance (ESG) analysis by the multi-national customers for these products. The commercial solutions offered by EcoSynthetix have delivered a 40% reduction in carbon footprint on average versus the petrochemicals they replace.
In addition, these renewable solutions are also targeting the elimination of chemicals that are concerning to health and safety; for example, eliminating carcinogenic formaldehyde used as a glue in particleboard for furniture.
EcoSynthetix is just one of many companies offering renewable solutions to the world. The markets it targets are large ones – each with market potential in the multi-billions. If the company were to convert its entire addressable markets, it would still require much less than 1% of the global corn supply. The corn used is specifically grown for industrial use. With the right thinking and positive steps in the supply chain, much more corn can be unlocked for renewable and economic value.
The USDA estimates that 30-40% of food in the United States goes to waste. This compares to near 100% efficiency in the use of corn for these biopolymers. Eliminating food waste is a significant issue where practical measures could unlock tremendous value for both consumer and industrial solutions. In response, the USDA has implemented a program to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.
The world, and particularly North America, has put significant political and economic effort behind renewable fuels. Ethanol support and usage mandates have driven the use of approximately 30% of the entire U.S. corn crop for the production of ethanol.
This policy has been promoted as part of energy security and carbon footprint reduction. These drivers are questionable. The main underlying driver is political capital tied to agricultural regions and the companies involved in the production and distribution of ethanol.
The carbon impact of ethanol production and its use was highlighted in a Reuters analysis in September 2022, questioning whether there is any positive climate change impact through the use of ethanol in place of gasoline.
Even if we ignore the potential renewable impact and focus simply on the marginal economics in the use of corn, those same renewable products offered by EcoSynthetix generate approximately three times the economic return for a bushel of corn versus using that same bushel to produce ethanol.
Polymers from renewable sources like corn can give rise to a very compelling economic ecosystem, while generating a climate positive outcome. With fertile land, a strong agricultural base, universities and companies committed to green chemistry, and support for the green economy from all levels of government, it should be possible to create this valuable ecosystem, from farmer through to global renewable chemical manufacturer, right here in our own backyard.