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#39 - Ultrasound to break sawdust into green chemicals

#39 - Ultrasound to break sawdust into green chemicals

The bio-based chemicals industry is poised for growth

Customers are increasingly asking brands to offer more sustainable products, and surveys continuously show that circa 50% of us are willing to pay more for them.

Given it helps industries to shift away from reliance on petrochemicals, the bio-based chemicals industry is poised for growth and is attracting investments and talents.

In fact, this market is projected to more than double by the end of the decade and surpass the $300 billion mark globally by 2035 (8% CAGR).

As always with this kind of new technology, bio-chemistry products face cost competitiveness and scalability hurdles.

More resilient, less energy-intensive

An emerging solution to replace fossil-derived chemicals is biorefining. It offers a method to process low-carbon feedstocks, like lignin, into intermediate chemicals for creating low-carbon renewable plastics.

Lignin, a naturally occurring organic substance abundant in woody plants, is often discarded in landfills or incinerated despite potential commercial applications.

Lignin is the world’s second-most abundant natural biopolymer.

Unfortunately, most lignin extraction processes are inefficient and energy-intensive, emitting substantial greenhouse gases and yielding low-grade lignin, thereby limiting their suitability for industrial applications.

In fact, only 55% of logs processed in sawmills are turned into usable construction timber, leaving 45% as low-value by-products.

Do you see the opportunity? High volumes of cheap and locally available feedstock is ready to be transformed. But we need a process.

Sonichem, turning sawdust into sustainable chemicals

Then called Bio-Sep, the company was incorporated in 2007 by chemistry researchers out of Leicester in the UK.

They patented a technology that uses ultrasound forces to break chemical bonds in sawdust, releasing cellulose, sugars, and lignin fractions.

Analysis revealed Sonichem's lignin boasts remarkable purity, reactivity, and solubility, ideal for serving as low-carbon feedstocks for platform chemicals across various sectors such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, packaging, and materials.

For every £1 of sawdust, Sonichem’s technology can create £8 worth of bio-based sustainable chemicals – Adrian Black, CEO of Sonichem.

This green alternative presents a low environmental impact compared to oil-derived chemicals and paves the way for transitioning away from non-sustainable hydrocarbon reserves.

Pre-Series A and beyond

The start-up has been a bit stagnant for more than 10 years. In 2021, the board appointed Adrian Black as CEO, and the company was rebranded as Sonichem in 2023.

I met Adrian in London last year. As the former Founder and CEO of NorthRow, a London-based KYC company, he knows a thing or two about how to run a start-up.

While the scientists could focus on science, he went on to successfully raise a £1.2m Pre-A round led by ACF Investors. This funding will support them in developing the technology and finalising the design of a future plant.

From the left: Omar Farooq (Process Engineer), Adrian Black (CEO) Andy West (Chief Chemist) and Miranda Lindsay-Fynn (Commercial Director)

The company must now focus on achieving some commercial traction! Exploring ways to better produce plastics, resins, and composites, Sonichem is applying its proprietary technology to automotive manufacturing as a first use case.

A Series A round should follow in 2024. The next big milestone is to build a first-of-a-kind (FOAK) commercial biorefinery plant. I've seen the plans, and the site is already identified.

If you're interested, I believe some Sonichem shares are available on Seedrs, at an indicative valuation of £7.4 million. No financial advice!

Thank you for reading!
Colin Rebel
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