Briefings

119423The Beauty of Being Biobased

The Beauty of Being Biobased

By Simon Johns - Jun 10, 2021

Lubes’n’Greases talked to Mark Miller, the CEO of Biosynthetic Technologies, about the sustainability of his company’s products and why he thinks sustainability matters.

Miller left behind petroleum-based chemistries to start a company making biodegradable fluids. Now he heads Biosynthetic Technologies, which produces a range of synthetic oils from renewable organic fatty acids for industrial, metalworking and personal care applications. Its three product lines pass or exceed tests for biodegradation and bioaccumulation, and meet the requirements for the European Ecolabel and the U.S. EPA Vessel General Permit. The company is also eyeing the electric vehicle coolant and dielectric fluid space with keen interest.

QWhy did you start this business?

It’s what gets us up in the morning! We started with, “Why? Why are we doing this?” and came up with our vision – we’re providing innovative solutions for a sustainable future. That is our raison d’etre. Our message is that we want to be a sustainable petroleum replacement.

Now, I’m from the oil industry and there’s a lot of really good things that oil does – friction and wear. It really makes the world go around. But we also think there are more sustainable products or technologies that we can utilize, particularly when people are working in environmentally sensitive areas or in places that have a high propensity of contact with humans and animals and plants.

QWhat was the moment in your career when sustainable lubricants became your focus?

Personally, it was the birth of my first-born son. When I was at Lubrizol, selling harsh chemicals to the petroleum industry – and doing quite well, and I saw this little kid and I said to myself, “There’s got to be a better way.” And within a few years, I’d spun off and started my first company, which was Terresolve Technologies, that made vegetable-based lubricants. It’s always been a huge passion of mine on a personal level to be more sustainable and more environmentally acceptable.

QTake us back to when you started Terresolve. What was the market like for eco-friendly products?

I founded Terresolve in 1996, and I like to say that back then green was still a color. Nobody understood what we were doing. We were hanging around people with flowing shirts and flowers in their hair.  

The sustainable movement – the biodegradable movement – was just in its infancy. People were bootlegging biodiesel in their garage and running it in their Volkswagen minibus. Now it’s grown up, as you well know.

In many of my presentations, I talk about what I consider to be the steps and stages of sustainability. You first had to be biobased, and you had to be safe, and you’re talking about coming from vegetables, being non-toxic, biodegradable and non-bio-accumulative. Then it had to work, then you had to have a performance basis. And then you had to have a cost-effective business model.

They didn’t have to be on price parity with petroleum – and bio-lubricants, bio-metalworking fluids and even bio-cosmetics still aren’t – but they have to have a value proposition. It’s got to make sense from an economic perspective.

So, if you have people working in close contact with metalworking fluids, you want to try and minimize the harsh chemicals as much as you can. People in the personal care space are trying to move away from white oils and silicones, and things like that. People are continuously moving towards the bio-organic.

We’re all of the names – we’re vegan, we’re halal, kosher, and that’s important in some industries.

QSustainable is an overused word when describing lubrication products these days. What qualifies BT’s offerings as sustainable?

Our primary molecule is derived from vegetable oils, mostly soy and castor oils. We feel it’s very important to support the agrarian community. Our soy products are grown in the US and support our friends and neighbors. Our products are derived from 12 hydroxy stearic acid. And what we like about that is it’s grown in India in very arid environments where nothing else can grow. So it’s not competing with food.

The farmers are at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic strata. It’s really an entry point to help people pull themselves out of poverty. We like it from that social aspect of it.

Our Indian manufacturing facility is in the heart of the castor lands. Literally, you look outside the fence and you see the plants. You’re not shipping products all across the world; it’s really close. Our CO2 footprint on that is very, very small.

The facility itself is 100% powered by renewable energy from a local wind farm. The reactor boilers are fired by spent castor hulls or castor cake.

From that perspective, when you do the total lifecycle assessment of our estolide, sitting at the dock or at our gate, we’re actually carbon negative. For every ton of estolide, we’re absorbing 9 tons of CO2. Part of it is the plant absorbing that.

QFrom which end-user industry do you feel the most momentum for sustainability?

I think they’re all the same. If you look at the big metalworking and/or industrial lubricant companies, they’re all claiming carbon neutrality today on some level, and independently on other levels.

Most of them are doing some carbon trading now, but they have a very strong sustainable visions of getting there independently without trading carbon credits. I think sustainability is an idea whose time has really come.

QWhat would tip the balance faster in favor of the kind of products that BT is producing?

Our message is they work better. There was a notion that if it was environmentally friendly or sustainable or was biobased, it wasn’t as good. And that’s not the case anymore. I’ll go toe to toe with any petroleum derived product and steal it’s lunch money. I’m a chemical engineer and I’ve got the data that says we have better oxidative stability, better hydrolytic stability or at least as good as the top-tier polyalphaolefin or top-tier synthetic petroleum-derived molecule, or as good as. I’m ok with that.

QWhat changes have you seen over the years that have affected the market for biobased lubricants?

I think the single most-important legislative action for biodegradable lubricants overall is the EPA Vessel General Permit. It legislates effluent off of marine-going vessels over 79 feet.

And at the end of 2012, they changed some of their verbiage for environmentally acceptable lubricants in what they call oil-to-sea interface. It’s where big machinery on big ships meets the water.

They’d done a very exhaustive study on how much petroleum oil gets into the ocean on a daily basis, some of which is by design, like the sealing mechanisms on the aft propellers on big boats. You can do the math very simply and see how much petroleum goes into the ocean. And they mandated the use of EALs in those pieces of equipment, and it revolutionized the market overnight. 

If you also look at the USDA Bio-preferred Program, it has had a significant economic impact in terms of employment and GDP growth – like $6 billion in economic GDP growth on a global basis. It’s been one of the greatest successes that people don’t know anything about in terms of using bio products.

We have very, very high bio-based content, so our customers can make bio-preferred-capable products. The beauty of being biobased is it’s renewable. Every year there’s a new soy bean crop, or every year there’s a new castor crop. It’s putting people to work.