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5 Minutes With… Robin Gibson from Origin Materials.

Origin Materials, a United States and Canada-based material development company, has announced its commitment to the commercial manufacture of the bio-based chemical 5-chloromethyl furfural (CMF). The chemical industry can start to innovative with this molecule that has a carbon-negative footprint at full commercial scale to help build a sustainable future. In the long-term, Origin Materials (@OriginMaterials) believes its product will be highly competitive with petrochemical-based raw materials.

The company has also announced the appointment of Dr. Robin Gibson as its Director of Business Development. He is based in the UK.

Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Dr. Gibson to find out more.

Liz Gyekye (LG):  Welcome to ‘5 Minutes With’ Robin. What is your role and what do you specialise in?

Dr. Robin Gibson (RG): My main role is to make customers aware of our product. Our technology allows us to make a carbon-negative molecule called 5-chloromethyl furfural (CMF) – a new molecule from a chemistry perspective. I have to enlighten the world that this material exists and inform the world as to where we are as a corporate development.

LG: What were you doing before this role?

RG: Overall, I have worked in chemistry for more than 30 years. Prior to my current role, I was working at Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation’s monomer and polymer division in a business development position. Here, I had a broad remit. My job was to expand the growth of Mitsubishi Chemical, via organic growth, JVs and acquisitions. I also had a focus on securing sustainable technologies for the company. Prior to Mitsubishi, I was CEO and founder of a VC-backed company that developed CO2 absorbing cements; the IP was sold in 2015.

LG: How does your process work?

RG: We have developed a proprietary biomass-to-chemicals production process based on furan chemistry, allowing the conversion of lignocellulosic plant-based carbon into chemical building blocks CMF and hydrothermal carbon (HTC), as well as furfural and levulinic acid, through simple, economical, single-step chemo-catalysis. Essentially, our process reduces the cellulose in biomass, such as wood or waste wood, into CMF. The chemical nature of it is flexible. CMF can be turned it into a large number of molecules.

CMF is a highly flexible raw material for many customers and chemistries including para-xylene, which can be converted to purified terephthalic acid (PTA) which is used in polyethylene terephthalate (PET), as well as numerous commodity and specialty chemicals through its derivatives, including furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA). The CMF sales opportunities here are huge. For instance, currently, the PET market for carbonated bottles is around 30 million tonnes.

There are many other examples where our molecule fits into, including surfactants, plasticizers, and monomers for the polymer manufacture. All in all, we estimate that we can interact with at least a third of the global chemical industry. For example, it’s quite stunning how many different parts of an automobile could be made from our platform molecule.

LG: Can PET be totally green then?

RG: PET is a combination of two molecules – terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. If you make the terephthalic acid from Origin’s CMF and bio-based ethylene, 100% of the carbons in that can come from a non-petrochem source, underpinning our Decarbonisation aims. And, you can also have a bio-based ethylene glycol source. So, you can potentially get 100% bio-based PET.

PET is a very versatile polymer. It can be mechanically reprocessed and reused and chemically recycled back to monomer at end of useful life.

LG: Where do you get your raw materials from?

RG: Our wood currently comes from North America. We are focused on this idea of carbon capture and decarbonisation. Trees grow and extract nutrients from the soil, but as trees grow they extract carbon from the air. If you don’t manage a forest, it will die and decay so emit CO2. Whereas, if you nurture and harvest wood from a managed forest, you capture CO2. The carbon from this forest can then be converted into stable products, which can potentially be recycled at its end of life.

LG:  What advice would you give to somebody starting out?

RG: You can often find a technical solution to a sustainable problem but finding an economic solution is very difficult. You need to focus on solving both of these issues at the same time.

LG: What opportunities are there for sustainable chemicals?

RG: The market wants them. Over the last ten years or so, we as consumers have become far more enlightened with environmental issues. Everybody wants to be able to robustly put sustainability alongside their products. It’s so fundamental now in a way that it wasn’t ten years ago.

LG: Will Covid-19 disrupt this?

RG: I think consumers will realise that we have to recover from Covid, but sustainability needs are still pressing.

LG: The EU is looking to consult on a new chemicals strategy that will focus on sustainable chemicals. What do you think about this?

RG: I think it is to be applauded. Long-term indicators focusing on 2030 are very helpful to encourage the chemical industry to change. The challenges are quite significant, but you can already see changes happening. You can see the number of new recycling companies coming through. If you look at plastics, the recycled PET price is currently higher than virgin. That’s partly due to the directives from the EU.

LG: What one thing would you like the chemicals industry to do better and why?

RG: Sometimes the industry fails to recognise that change in direction requires an increase in cost in the short-to-medium term. We should be braver in asking the consumer to accept those cost increases in the medium term. We have to pay for this shift somehow and we have to become less conservative as an industry.

If you were interested in this story, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Read: Spotlight on feedstocks: Origin Materials develops furan platform based on chloromethyl furfural

Read: Clariant converts INA’s miscanthus into lignocellulosic sugars and ethanol.

Read: Axens secure agreement for advanced bioethanol production in Croatia.

Read: Forest-based biomass industry: Where are we today and where are going tomorrow?

Read: Researchers find new ways to engineer plants.

Read: Bad news for bio-based chemicals as EU declares that gene editing IS genetic modification.

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