An exclusive interview with Tony Duncan, CEO of Circa Group


“By taking the time to scale up efficiently and deliberately, our position in the bioeconomy is growing. Circa remains focused on creating non-toxic, high-performance chemicals from cellulose, using our FuracellTM technology. We are targeting a market of over 900,000 tonnes per annum, growing at 4%. While we do not want to compete in the inevitable price war currently unfolding, as companies vie to be ‘last man standing’ to extract some cash out of legacy plants producing these toxic products, we do see plenty of opportunity to sensibly scale into the market over the next 5-10 years”. To say this – in this long, exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Tony Duncan, CEO of Circa Group, an Australian innovative company which is converting biomass into advanced biochemical materials.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Tony Duncan, CEO of Circa Group

Your company is converting waste biomass into advanced biochemical materials. Could you explain us more about your business?

Circa Group was founded in 2006, with the aim of creating a sustainable business which would convert non-food cellulose into high-performance, renewable chemicals. Cellulose is the most abundant, renewable polymer in the world. Millions of tonnes of cellulose are under-utilised every year and Circa sees a clear opportunity to extract more value from it.

Using our proprietary Furacell™ process, we produce Levoglucosenone, a highly-functional platform molecule with many potential industrial applications, including pharmaceutical, agri-chemical, food and advanced materials. Industrial quantities of Levoglucosenone are available for the first time thanks to our FuracellTM technology. We are also constructing a portfolio of derivative products and licensable IP from Levoglucosenone, across several growing market specialty chemical sectors such as bio-surfactants, flavours, agrochemicals, biopolymers and biosolvents –such as our biosolvent Cyrene®.

You developed Cyrene® in conjunction with the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence of York, right?

Yes, Cyrene® was developed in conjunction with the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) at the University of York, UK, with a focus on the 900,000-tonne solvent market in the pharmaceutical and speciality chemical industries. A chiral, dipolar aprotic solvent, Cyrene® is a bio-based alternative to traditional solvents such as NMP, DCM and DMF, which are under regulatory pressure worldwide due to their toxicity. However, we see opportunities for Cyrene® beyond simple replacement.

Cyrene® has a unique property set, including viscosity, surface tension and polarities, making it an interesting prospect for a range of opportunities beyond traditional solvent capabilities. For example, the functionality of Cyrene has the potential to act as a reactive solvent in advanced materials. Another unique feature is Cyrene®’s interaction with water. Cyrene® converts to a germinal diol, with protic properties which can be ‘dialled up’ depending on concentrations. However, if you remove the water, it reverts back to Cyrene®. These properties are providing chemists and process engineers with an opportunity to re-assess current processes and reduce steps, input costs and maximise performance. Results to date indicate Cyrene® is a safer, healthier, high-performance alternative to traditional solvents. Cyrene® – and other similar Levoglucosenone derivatives – continue to surprise researchers with their unique properties.

As part of our scaling up plans, we’ve entered into a joint venture in 2015 with Norwegian pulp and paper company Norske Skog. Together, we’ve built FC5 in Tasmania, Australia – an AUD$6.5 million commercial demonstration plant with a 50 tonne/year capacity for Cyrene®. Certified, renewable cellulose waste from papermaking and forestry operations is being used as feedstock to manufacture Levoglucosenone and Cyrene®. Commissioning of FC5 has started, and output will be sold through Sigma-Aldrich, a limited number of specialty distributors and directly to tier 1 manufacturers of speciality materials.

We are also part of the ReSolve consortium, a €4.3 million Horizon 2020-funded project aiming to replace traditional, fossil-based solvents categorised as substances of very high concern (SVHC) under European REACH regulation.

And about your technology?

Our proprietary Furacell™ process is the world’s first continuous process to manufacture Levoglucosenone. The technology has been proven over seven years and four pilot plants.

Efficient and flexible, the Furacell™ process is highly selective for Levoglucosenone, producing minimal by-products. When heat is applied to cellulose, Levoglucosenone, water and char are produced. This reduces downstream separation processes and consequent waste disposal. The char produced provides enough energy to run the Furacell™ process, meaning it is almost GHG neutral.

Our cellulose feedstock – currently sawdust – is non-food competing. Our FuracellTM technology follows a clear manufacturing philosophy which has been maintained as production volumes have increased: the process will work with as many cellulose-based feedstocks as possible (e.g. sawdust, bagasse, straw, etc.), it will not consume water, be almost energy-neutral and avoid intractable waste. Sustainability is central to Circa’s manufacturing philosophy and we continue to work on making our processes as efficient as possible.

What are your industrial and academic partners?

From the beginning, Circa decided to employ a small research group internally and partner with experts in universities and companies which are closer to our chosen markets, to develop products and technologies. This approach has cost-effectively delivered several patented products and processes which Circa owns or has exclusive options to commercialise.

As mentioned, biosolvent Cyrene® was developed in conjunction with GCCE at the University of York. Circa and the University of York have an ongoing relationship to develop safer and greener products. The expertise of Professor James Clark and his team at GCCE has been instrumental in identifying Cyrene® and other potential Levoglucosenone-based solvents. We are currently discussing a partnership with AgroParisTech to commercialise joint developments in specialty chemicals.

Dr Ben Greatrex at the University of New England has collaborated with us for many years on a range of Levoglucosenone-based derivatives. Dr Greatrex has considerable experience with Levoglucosenone and has published extensively on the chemistry.

Sigma-Aldrich help us ensure Cyrene® and Levoglucosenone are available to researchers across the world. We are also working with a limited number of distributors and companies in selected speciality market segments before considering our next manufacturing phase.

What is the bioeconomy from your point of view?

The bioeconomy is the move from hydrocarbon-based chemicals and materials to carbohydrate-based chemicals and materials. While this sounds simplistic, there is a massive and complex push underway – driven primarily by consumer-facing companies alongside most governments – and the results are very encouraging. However, addressing inertia from upstream actors is a challenge.

Some of the more enlightened companies see the opportunity to re-evaluate their manufacturing process (and products) and benefit from the advantages some of these new molecules deliver. However, when you ask why companies in the solvent sector use a traditional – and possibly dangerous – solvent, the standard answer is “because we always have”.

We believe there is a generation of chemists and engineers who have grown up not having to understand ‘why’. Now that regulatory demands are catching up with these toxic products, there is a major gap in understanding – and many companies are struggling to identify the key attributes required to optimise a reaction or process. Therefore, the challenge for most companies bringing bio-products to market is the inertia within the manufacturing supply chain – and predictable pushback from entrenched players.

Australia’s bioeconomy seems to be underestimated in the global context. what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the bioeconomy in your country?

Australia has always had a competitive advantage in primary production – and if we take out the mining sector, then the balance is built primarily around traditional bio-activities: farming and forestry, much of which is focussed on markets in the region. While there are some excellent examples of value adding, Australia has struggled to be perceived as an overall innovator.

This is partly due to the tyranny of distance – markets for these products are often in North America and Europe – and short-term government thinking also does not help. Having said that, we are seeing some encouraging signs from politicians, particularly at State level, recognising that there are considerable opportunities for employment and export growth by value adding what Australia does best – grow things.

What are the next steps in the biobased chemistry for Circa Group?

By taking the time to scale up efficiently and deliberately, our position in the bioeconomy is growing. Circa remains focused on creating non-toxic, high-performance chemicals from cellulose, using our FuracellTM technology.

We are targeting a market of over 900,000 tonnes per annum, growing at 4%. While we do not want to compete in the inevitable price war currently unfolding, as companies vie to be ‘last man standing’ to extract some cash out of legacy plants producing these toxic products, we do see plenty of opportunity to sensibly scale into the market over the next 5-10 years.

Beyond solvents, we also see a range of interesting opportunities to exploit the amazing functionality of Levoglucosenone and Cyrene® in areas such as new biopolymers, surfactants and other platform chemicals.

 

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