Biobased PEF (polyethylene furanoate), the new feedstock for soft drink bottles is not only green, but also cheaper to produce than both fossil and drop-in green PET (polyethylene terephthalate). It also has better properties.
Tom van Aken, Avantium’s CEO, explains it again and again. PEF is six times a better barrier for oxygen than PET, and three times for carbon dioxide. All scores for PEF are better, not only against PET, but also against all other possible competing materials. It can be processed in the same way and in the same machinery as PET; the bottle manufacturers do not need new equipment if they replace PET with PEF. It is even easier to handle because of the lower melting temperature, and better in use because of the higher glass transition temperature. And last but not least, in large quantities it is even cheaper, in particular when compared to bioPET, Pepsi Cola’s idea. Tom van Aken: bioPET requires twice as much feedstock as PEF, and hence, even if it would perform equally well on all other parameters, PEF would be the winner. And in the competition with fossil PET, PEF’s superior properties would tip the scales in its favor.
Pepsi was the first, but Coca Cola and Danone are also involved in the development and introduction of PEF bottles. PEF is made from bio-based ethylene glycol and FDCA (furan-2,5-dicarboxylic acid). As with most furfural derivatives, the chemistry is not novel: FDCA was first obtained in 1876 and is derived from furoic acid, which was first described in 1780!
FDCA is one of 12 priority chemicals for establishing the “green” chemistry industry of the future, according to the US Department of Energy. Furoic acid is made from furfural, which is not rocket science to produce. It has been commercially produced since 1922 and is readily available.
Although there are still technical hurdles to overcome, there are also chemical pathways being developed, notably by Netherlands-based Avantium, to commercially produce FDCA from HMF (Hydroxymethylfurfural),a versatile platform chemical which is derived from fructose and potentially from glucose.
In fact, a fundamental challenge lying ahead in the development of efficient processes to utilize biomass feedstock is that, unlike fossil hydrocarbon chains, biomass contains an excess amount of oxygen. Therefore, catalytic strategies such as dehydration and hydrogenolysis amongst others have been extensively studied as platform technologies for deoxygenation. The catalytic dehydration of C6 carbohydrates to hydroxymethylfurfural has attracted much attention due to the versatility of using furanic compounds as an important platform intermediate to synthesize various chemicals.
Therefore, furfural should be the obvious choice as a platform chemical for alternatives to PET or other polymers. Furfural production does no longer require (costly) pilot plants, nor does it have to wait for the eventual construction of the next-generation biorefineries. Most importantly, furfural can be produces from a variety of biomass and its production can also be integrate to existing (e.g. sugar) and new agri-processing or biomass conversion (e.g. pulp) industries. Furfural production is also well suited to small scale biomass processors in the immediate vicinity of the biomass supply. Therefore, investments into furfural production can have a direct social-economic impact in creating new green rural jobs, now. It’s an investment into a US$5 billion business, a renaissance of a bio-renewable chemistry that goes beyond green “PET” soda bottles.