Elevance Renewable Sciences has all the makings of an environmentally minded company — from its wide offerings of bio-based chemicals made using renewable oils, to the bee in its logo (a symbol the company chose because bees repurpose raw ingredients without depleting its source), to its bright and airy home office just outside Chicago.
But Elevance’s success has hinged on more than just green appeal. The company says what sets their products apart is that they rival their petro-derived counterparts in both performance and price.
The secret in their sauce is a proprietary metathesis technology that won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005. Using this technology, the company harnesses abundant, renewable oils as feedstocks to create an array of chemicals used in consumer and industrial products.
Elevance is by no means the first or only company that’s been able to demonstrate the use of renewable feedstocks for chemicals. But because their technology is so efficient, they’ve been able to go beyond the discovery and demonstration phase of bio-based chemical development and scale up production to become a high-growth leader in the chemicals market.
In 2013 year, Elevance built the first world-scale biorefinery in Gresik, Indonesia as a joint venture with Wilmar International Limited. Business has been good and customer forecasts so strong that the company is now in the process of building another refinery, this time in Natchez, Mississippi. Both refineries will churn out millions of pounds of chemicals, taking advantage of their proximity to the feedstocks for Elevance’s products, including soybean, canola, mustard and palm oils.
In the wider chemicals market, petro-chemicals are still the powerhouse on the block -- but they won’t be forever. According to the American Chemistry Society, an industry trade group, the chemicals industry is currently an $801 billion enterprise. Recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy has shown that growth in biobased chemicals is far outpacing the petro-chemicals sector. They predict that petrochemicals will grow between 3 to 6 percent until 2025 while biobased chemicals growth will be closer to 22 percent.
Which means that in the future, bio-based ingredients will be found on the labels of lubricants, paints, cleaners, cosmetics, and body care products more and more. In this new chemicals landscape, Elevance is uniquely positioned to continue edging that competition out and represent the future of the chemicals market. How have they pulled it off? What goes into developing their specialty — and often customizable — chemicals?
Elevance got its start with a Department of Energy grant to Cargill, a mega corporation that provides agricultural, food and industrial products and financial services, in 2004, then formed as a standalone company in 2007 after spinning off from Cargill.
The company’s novel metathesis technology breaks down renewable oils and reforms them into high-performing chemicals including esters, olefins and triglycerides, as well as multi-functional polymers — creating a category of products with unique performance attributes the company has coined as “Renewicals.”
Elevance says their technology also has a smaller footprint that petrochemical production. Because it is a low temperature, low pressure manufacturing process, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent compared to making petrochemicals.
The company’s portfolio includes chemicals used for engineering polymers and coatings, as well as lubricants and fuel additives. But according to Andy Shafer, Elevance’s executive vice president of sales and marketing development, the fastest growing product segment is their consumer and industrial ingredients platform that includes surfactants, solvents, personal care ingredients and even candle wax.
Elevance doesn’t publish its sales numbers, but Shafer says the continued expansion of its product line is a good indicator of the company’s ongoing success.
All of that expansion means lots of time in the lab toying with chemistry and meeting evolving market needs.
Ryan Littich, an innovation projects leader at Elevance, says when developing a new chemical, Elevance’s team heads into the lab knowing that it will likely take months and dozens of tests to determine if the product is ready.
Littich says one of the trending chemical demands has been for safer, more environmentally friendly cleaners.
“There’s a lot of effort around making renewable high-performance, low-VOC cleaners, especially for the chemical manufacturing processing industries,” he says.
Elevance’s team of research chemists are also able to tailor chemicals to meet precise performance goals.
Greg Gerhardt, a commercial development manager at Elevance, explains one instance of how the company was able to help operators of wind turbines address a tricky problem: foam.
“Wind turbines contain gear boxes that are filled with synthetic lubricants. Unfortunately in some cases the lubricants foam when they’re in operation, which interferes with the durability of the gearbox,” he says. “What we’ve been able to address with Elevance Aria WTP 40, is a product for the industry that has less foam than petrochemical alternatives.”
It’s that emphasis on high performance that Shafer says helps Elevance dispel any myths that biobased equals a higher price tag and a sacrifice in quality. It’s also making biobased chemicals more competitive today than they have been in the past.
“The difference in being biobased today from what it was in the 1800s — when everything was biobased before petroleum came on to the scene — is that today’s technology enables the industry to get more than we could get before...and with a smaller footprint,” Shafer says.
From coatings to sealants, and from beauty counters to oilfields, Elevance’s products continue to make their mark. With Elevance and other renewable chemical companies expanding, it likely won’t be long before biobased isn’t the exception, but the norm for everyday chemicals.