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Monday, September 5, 2016

Moving new processes to full scale: Plenty of pitfalls

Jim Lane runs one of the best known blogs in the field of bio-products, and in his latest post (here), he uses BioAmber's recently announced successes to identify critical drivers for success when scaling up a novel bio-based process. He concludes that the operating culture of the company is critical, and that many technology developers are ill-equipped to be owner-operators.

I agree that this is critical, and Bio-Amber's reported progress is very pleasant news indeed given the backdrop of failure and alleged fraud at some other operations, which Lane has documented very clearly over the last number of years. But I would argue there are a couple of other factors as well.

Taking the time to get the technology right

Bio-Amber is not, to my knowledge, running on second generation sugars yet. Their partnership with Comet will hopefully bring sugars from crop residues to the mix. Bio-Amber took it slow: proving the process works on first generation sugars, getting the bugs out, then moving to the next stage. Trying to do everything right the first time out is a challenge; focusing on one technical challenge at a time will be far safer (if slower). And the first focus should be on the single most critical technical step, in this case getting Bio-Amber's specific sugar-to-succinic acid process to work. Other successful firms have illustrated this single-minded focus on the one critical step in their process, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Taking the time to scale it up

The mad rush over the last decade to build full-scale second generation ethanol plants in the US led to a landscape strewn with wreckage. Pilot and demonstration scales are critical before going commercial. You find out all kinds of things in these steps, between lab-bench results at the 10 or 100 gram scale, and the hundreds of tonnes per day pace of a full-scale plant. Many of the things you will find out are unrelated to the technology, but will cause huge delays and costs later if you don't find these things out early. Corrosion, impact of recirculation loops on process stability, process controllability and real-world yields are among the problems that can bring a multi-tonne per day project to its knees. 

Conclusion: take your time

No, banks or other lending agencies won't like this. But the alternative may be a costly failure. And an added problem with costly failures, beyond the lost government or private investments, is the negative impact that another bit of bad PR will have on future projects in this industry. The good news is that companies with excellent operating cultures get it.

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