By Ajay Shah, Mary Wicks and Ashish Manandhar
The bioeconomy is a challenging marketplace. Making products from plants requires ingenuity and perseverance; getting them to market requires similar skills. While a product may be a brilliant innovation and testing has demonstrated its potential, there is no guarantee that it can be successfully commercialized. Before acquiring financing and moving to the production stage, an evaluation of the product’s scale-up potential is the critical step. This evaluation answers questions about performance, economic viability and environmental impacts.
The first step in evaluating scale-up is to develop a comprehensive model of the engineering systems and processes required for production. Process data, such as feedstock production, operating conditions, and item size and number, need to be identified. Next, performance data, including yield, system efficiency and fuel consumption, as well resources, including equipment, chemicals, consumables and energy, must be estimated. Spatiotemporal data that will impact production, such as weather conditions, roadways and travel times, also need to be determined. All of these data, which are obtained from both research and published sources, are used to create a model that illustrates system inputs and material flows.
Techno-economic and life cycle analysis
A techno-economic analysis (TEA) provides a detailed assessment of the types and volumes of materials and resources required for production. Capital and operating costs are also determined. The TEA provides a sensitivity analysis that identifies how different inputs affect the production cost or sale price. The life cycle analysis (LCA) incorporates system outputs, including byproducts, to assess the effects of production on environmental factors, such as emissions and water quality impacts. These analyses provide information that can be used to improve the process, increasing the chance for successful scale-up.
An example: Lactic acid production from corn stover
Lactic acid, which is used in food, cosmetics, polymers and other products, had a global market of $2.1 billion in 2015 (Grandview Research, 2017). Within this market, the demand for polylactic acid (PLA) that is derived from plants, such as corn stover, has been growing. A preliminary evaluation of production of PLA from corn stover included a process model that identified all the inputs required for preparation, pretreatment, and fermentation of the corn stover, and the purification and recovery of PLA.
Based on this model, the specific materials for each process, in terms of metric tons per hour, to produce 14 metric tons of PLA/hour were determined. The equipment (e.g., one tub grinder, seven fermenter tanks, two distillation columns, and utility (electricity, steam, cooling and chilled water) needs were also determined. These data were used to calculate the capital investment and annual operating costs, and a minimum selling price of $1,850 per ton was estimated, based on a 15% internal rate of return.
The TEA sensitivity analysis of selected inputs shows that the biggest effect on PLA selling price was the PLA yield and feedstock cost; whereas, fermentation time had the least effect. An LCA study by Argonne National Lab (Adom and Dunn, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1002/bbb.1734), which compared PLA produced from corn grain to PLA from corn stover, found that the corn stover PLA process, from cradle to grave, used 25% less energy and had 54% less greenhouse gas emissions.
While a comprehensive evaluation of the scale-up potential of a new bioproduct is time-consuming and requires expertise, it can help avoid costly mistakes. By identifying inputs, processes or impacts that could affect scale-up, the evaluation provides the detailed information needed to make decisions that will improve the chance for success in the commercialization phase.
Dr. Ajay Shah, Mary H. Wicks and Ashish Manandhar, Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Phone: 330.263.3858; 330.202.3533. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences