Novamont, an Italian spin-off from the ex giant holding Montedison, is undoubtedly a European pioneer and currently one of the leading companies in the development and production of materials and biochemicals through the integration of chemistry, the environment and agriculture. With 323 employees and a turnover of €135 million in 2012, it devotes nearly 5% of sales to direct R&D activities manned by more than 65 people.
In Berlin Stefano Facco, Novamont’s New Business Development Director, presented the recent developments of Novamont’s Integrated Biorefinery and the latest generations of Mater-Bi® biopolymers, with enhanced properties, better biodegradability in industrial composting conditions and generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their entire lifecycle.
New products available from early 2014 onward were also announced. These will be produced by the “project Matrìca” plants, the 50/50 joint venture between Novamont and Versalis. Examples given are pelargonic acid which is used to make bio-lubricants and has applications in the fields of phyto-pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, detergents, food fragrances and lacquers; azelaic acid which is used in the production of biopolymers and extender oils from renewable sources specifically intended for the manufacturing of green tyres.
Under the brand name Mater-Bi® Novamont produces and markets a broad family of innovative bioplastics obtained thanks to proprietary technologies in the field of starch, cellulose, vegetable oils and their combinations.
Bioplastics are materials whose properties and characteristics of use are very similar to those of traditional plastics, but at the same time, they are biodegradable and compostable according to the European standard UNI EN 13432, the most important reference for the technical material manufacturers, public authorities, composters, certifiers and consumers.
Due to the characteristics of biodegradability and compostability, Mater-Bi® products allow to optimize waste collection and management, to reduce environmental impact and to contribute to the development of virtuous systems with significant advantages along all the production-consumption-disposal cycle.
Mater-Bi® biopolymers can be classified according different typologies or “grades”.
The vegetable components are of various kinds (cellulose, glycerin, natural fillers and non-genetically modified starch obtained from various crops) and are all extracted from plantations that do not exploit virgin or deforested land.
For example, corn starch, traditionally one of the first plant components to be used in Mater-Bi®, is a substance that has been widely used for decades as an industrial additive to produce a large number of products such as paper. The corn used is not genetically modified and is grown in Europe following the usual agronomic practices adopted by European farms. It is extracted directly from the grains and subjected to physical changes designed to maintain its natural characteristics. This makes the process efficient, reducing the use of resources to a minimum.
The grades of Mater-Bi® containing starch are covered by a wide range of patents and present highly diversified structures in which the starch either forms a complex with the other polymer components or presents a very fine dispersed morphology, which makes the products particularly tough.
Other grades of Mater-Bi® do not contain starch but simply biodegradable polymers produced using raw materials coming from renewable sources or fossil-derived raw materials. The substances obtained from fossil resources are only used when their renewable equivalents are not available on an industrial level. Vegetable oils used as a raw material for polymers come from non-genetically modified crops (no use is made of palm oil or soybean oil).
One of the components involved in the process of realization of Mater-Bi® are Origo-Bi®, the family of polyesters obtained from vegetable oils through a Novamont technology. Origo-Bi ® help to improve the technical, economic and environmental impacts of Mater-Bi® and toincrease the range of properties.
The properties of Mater-Bi® grades vary considerably. As regards their mechanical properties, the products range from those with a low modulus and extremely high toughness to stiff products that tend to be brittle. As for their transparency, the products range from lactescent to transparent. All commercial grades may be transformed using blow moulding, casting, extrusion/thermoforming and injection moulding machines for traditional plastics.
With regard to their biodegradability, the commercial products are all certified in accordance with the European and international standards by accredited Certifying Authorities that guarantee biodegradation in various disposal environments. Mater-Bi® waste may therefore be recovered through “biological recycling” (that is, composting and anaerobic digestion) together with kitchen and garden waste. Biodegradation in household compost and soil is also guaranteed for many grades. The biodegradability of the waste can certainly not be taken as an excuse for dumping it in a wood or the sea but, if an accidental spillage takes place, Mater-Bi® will undergo biodegradation even in the marine environment.
The environmental profile of Mater-Bi® grades is evolving continuously, in line with the development of the Novamont biorefinery model, which is based on continuous integration with the upstream agricultural production stage. Second-generation products integrating starch technology with plant derived polyester technology are currently available on the market.
The products and processes are constantly improved using the “Life Cycle Assessment” (LCA) approach. The year 2014 will see the launch of third and fourth generation products that integrate the chemicals produced by the new joint ventures of Novamont in the fields of green chemistry (Matrica) and biotechnology (Mater-Biotech) and that will further reduce the environmental impact of Mater-Bi®.
All grades of Mater-Bi® realize their full environmental potential when they are used in applications in which their peculiar performance brings advantages to the system both during their use and at the end of their life. In this sense, rather than being considered a simple replacement for traditional plastics, this class of products should be seen as an opportunity to redesign the entire system, focusing attention on the efficient use and recovery of the resources.