Virent expanding plant-based bottle program with Coca-Cola

Virent Inc. (USA) will expand production in Madison of a plant-based chemical that can be used to make renewable plastic bottles, through an additional investment by The Coca-Cola Co. 

Virent, a Madison-based clean technology company, said Monday that Coca-Cola’s new investment will enable it to scale up separation and purification of plant-based paraxylene — a chemical used in PET plastic as well as polyester fibers.

PET — polyethylene terephthalate — is a synthetic fiber polymer. PET bottle resin is put into a stretch blow molding process to make soft drink bottles. The principal raw materials for PET are derived from crude oil and natural gas.

Virent and Coca-Cola have been working together since 2011 on a project to help the soft drink company replace fossil fuels as a raw material source in its bottles.

Coca-Cola has sold beverages in what it calls “PlantBottles” for years, but those plant bottles only include 30% plant-based plastic. The paraxylene product that Virent produces allows the remaining 70% of the bottle to be plant-based.

“Over the course of our work together, Virent has continuously delivered on their commitments and advanced their technology,” said Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle Innovation Platform at Coca-Cola, in a statement.

“That progress supports building additional capability for Virent and advances on the path to a full-scale commercial solution for our 100% plant-based PET plastic packaging.”

Lee Edwards, Virent’s chief executive, said Coca-Cola’s “intention to use our BioFormPX material in the next generation of PlantBottle packaging is critical in attracting manufacturing partners from the PET supply chain.”

The size of the new investment wasn’t announced, but it will allow production of larger quantities of the paraxylene. In operation since 2010, Virent’s demonstration plant is like a crude oil refinery in that it produces transportation fuels and other substance, including one converted into the paraxylene.

Virent is one of three companies working with Coca-Cola on PlantBottle technology. The others are Colorado-based Gevo and Avantium, which is based in the Netherlands.

For Virent, the Coca-Cola investment will fund purchase and installation of new equipment that is needed to chemically produce and purify paraxylene from one of the byproducts of Virent’s biofuel production process, said Kieran Furlong, director of chemicals business development.

Virent hasn’t stated when it hopes to build a commercial-scale plant but the company is vying to build one to meet a 2020 deadline Coca-Cola has set to have its PlantBottles in mass production.

“We want to be that solution, and this investment is another step for us being that solution,” Furlong said.

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