“When we consider that nearly all of the materials and products in society today are essentially 100% based on petrochemicals and that the chemical sector is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, half of that from the fossil-based feedstock used to produce the chemicals, we see that the world is not only dependent on petroleum but also on petrochemicals. To transition to a lower carbon economy, we need renewable chemicals just as much as renewable energy.” Nick Smith, Head of Development Commercialisation at Circa Group, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the ReSolute plant in Eastern France, the new partnerships and the next steps of the Australian company and the role of the bioeconomy to make industries more sustainable.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Mr Smith, Circa’s ReSolute plant will produce green and sustainable solvents at industrial scale by utilising local forest biomass waste to manufacture Cyrene™ and replace conventional harmful solvents traditionally made from petrochemicals. The plant will be the first of its kind to produce the solvent Cyrene™ at 1,000 tonne commercial scale. What role does the ReSolute plant play in the strategic plans of Circa Group in Europe?
Hi Mario, thanks for having me. As you can imagine, the ReSolute plant in Eastern France will play an important role in Circa’s strategic plans in Europe. ReSolute is Circa’s first commercial scale plant and it will scale up the Cyrene™ production process – the Furacell™ process – to 1,000 metric tonnes per year. Our development roadmap has Circa building 80,000 tonnes of capacity by 2030. So ReSolute is the next step on that path and the next plant (FC6) is already in the planning stages.
We’ve been fortunate to win the support of the French government, the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) to fund the design, commissioning and operation of the ReSolute plant. We also did our initial public offering (IPO) in 2021.
Why did you choose France to build the plant?
France is really well-located geographically. And the ReSolute site in Eastern France was formerly home to a coal-fired power plant so it fits with our focus on sustainability. The site has great access to biomass and we’ve received support from all levels of the French government, from national to very local. We received €8.2 million from the French government in its post-pandemic ‘France Relance’ programme in 2022.
Also in France, we are close to the customers. As you know, both the market and the European legislator are calling for more sustainable chemicals. I believe it’s good for Europe to have new chemical companies developing and growing in the region. And it’s a sign that France and the EU can regenerate their industry and transform the chemical industry.
You’ve recently entered into recent partnerships with EKATO, Valmet and OQEMA for the development of your ReSolute plant. What do these partnerships mean?
As a small company, strategic partnerships across the value chain and with academia have been central to our development. It’s what got us to where we are today.
We recently entered into a partnership with Valmet as the main process technology and equipment supplier for our plants. Valmet will actively contribute to accelerating the development of our large-scale production plants so this is a really significant cooperation.
And there’s a recent partnership with EKATO for the hydrogenation technology which is a key part of our production process. Both of these agreements are for ReSolute and our subsequent plants.
We also signed a distribution agreement for Europe and the UK with OQEMA. This complements the existing distribution agreements Circa has with Will & Co, Merck and DICHEM and we also offer direct sales.
The world has been going through the worst crisis since the second world war post-war period: the shortage of raw materials, the energy crisis also related to the war in Ukraine. What role can the bioeconomy play to set up a new model of sustainable development capable of creating value and jobs?
Since joining Circa, I have become a true advocate and enthusiast for the bioeconomy which clearly has a role to play in the circular economy. I believe circularity will be the major model of sustainable development going forward and that the circular bioeconomy is part of the solution.
I believe we need multiple solutions to the challenges the world is facing. Before joining Circa, I spent my career in the petrochemical industry in a large multinational where I worked on strategic projects and sustainability.
The bioeconomy should not operate in a bubble. We need to build networks and partnerships across the value chain and that’s where my career in big chemical companies comes in. It’s not about setting the bioeconomy against the petrochemical industry. We need to be collaborative rather than competitive.
When we consider that nearly all of the materials and products in society today are essentially 100% based on petrochemicals and that the chemical sector is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, half of that from the fossil-based feedstock used to produce the chemicals, we see that the world is not only dependent on petroleum but also on petrochemicals. To transition to a lower carbon economy, we need renewable chemicals just as much as renewable energy.
But the investment has to be made in this technology cycle if we have any chance of meeting the Paris climate agreements. There are technologies already on the market, including in the bio-based sector, that can help make the transition to more sustainable business models now. A more circular, lower emissions economy is possible if the right decisions are made in the short term.
What are Circa Group’s plans for the next 5 years?
It all starts with our vision to be part of a strong bio-based chemical industry, one that’s environmentally responsible and that offers a feasible transition from fossil-based chemicals to safer, more sustainable alternatives. Our plans for the next five years are in service of our long-term vision.
As I mentioned before, we’ve quantified our vision in terms of 80,000 tonnes of capacity for bio-based chemicals by the end of the decade. A major part of our five-year plan is the construction of those plants and creating market demand for our product. My role as Head of Development and Commercialisation is essentially to commercialise Circa’s products which includes the green solvent Cyrene™ and other levoglucosenone (LGO) derivatives.
I’m working not only to develop the business for our current plant and our ReSolute plant but also to secure long-term market and customer demand with capacity reservations which will fuel the development of those future demands.
I also work closely with the newly formed Circa Renewable Chemistry Institute at the University of York which is helping us build capacity and develop market applications to support our customers. This fits with the vision I shared about building a more sustainable chemical industry for the future. At Circa, our mission is to change chemistry for good and I’m excited to be part of making that happen.