Cobalt CEO: Biochems More Profitable than Biofuels

John Davis

The head of a company that produces biochemicals and biofuels says the chemical market, although smaller, is much more profitable than the renewable fuel market.

According to this piece from Biofuels Digest, during the recent BioPro Expo and Conference in Atlanta, Cobalt Technologies CEO Rick Wilson questioned the wisdom of focusing on biofuels when the better money is in biochemicals:

“Why make a $2 fuel when you can make a $5 chemical?” asks Cobalt CEO Rick Wilson, whose company was branded in the public eye as Cobalt Biofuels for several years, but has morphed towards “Cobalt Technologies” (its original name) and is squarely focused on the market for renewable chemicals for the time being. By any name, it’s a hot company, ranked #14 in the world in this year’s 50 Hottest Companies rankings.

“I’m not saying that any of the companies, including us, should not be pursuing fuels. The markets are huge and the molecules work. But the country has got all its priorities screwed up. Here we are chasing fuels, which is the hardest problem to solve, instead of incentivizing or supporting companies to get into business by solving some of the easier problems first, like chemicals or other bio-based products?”

“At our company, we produce n-butanol, normal butanol. That’s been produced for a long time, through the complex ABE process, using a lot of different traditional feedstocks. But the feedstocks are increasingly cost prohibitive. The usual barrier to using advanced microorganisms to produce biobutanol has been the rate of fermentation. In our process, we have dramatically overcome that, and accelerated the fermentation rate. Our fermentation time is four hours, compared to 72 hours with the ABE methods. So we have the opportunity to use low-cost feedstocks such as bagasse and wood biomass, to large-value markets where we have a significant cost advantage.”

Wilson admits the biochemical market is much smaller than biofuels, especially when you consider there’s $250 billion in jet fuel and nearly a $1 trillion in gasoline alone. But he says it’s a lot harder to turn a profit in biofuels.

biobutanol, biochemicals, biofuels