International Conference on Bio-Based Materials – Day 2

The second day of the International Conference on Bio-based Materials in Köln, Germany, organised by nova-Institute, focused largely  on the industry of bio-building blocks, bio- polymers and bio-composites.

Dr. Helen de Wever from VITO (Vision on Technology – the Flemish Institute of Technology Research in Belgium)  starts with the fascinating subject of highly functionalised lignin molecules. 
  • VITO focuses on aromatics as they represent 40% of all chemical molecules used and most of them are still petro-chemical based. The demand is higher than the supply which translates into price tensions (e.g. a sudden  increase by 25% in 2012).
  • Lignin by itself has a very interesting structure made of different types of aromatic molecules. VITO ´s approach is to look for novel molecules with novel functionalities and replace some molecules used today that represent a health hazard like bisphenol A and phenol- formaldehyde adhesives.
  • The Project is called ARBOREF “Bio-refinery of entire plant biomass to aromatics”
  • Its primary objective is to develop the direct chemical catalysis of lignin using PI of the University of Leuven/Louvain on the subject and nanofiltration to separate lignin fractions.
  • Complementarily to the conversion of lignin, the BIORIZON platform formed between VITO and Dutch TNO  (www.biorizon.eu) will allow to convert sugar streams into  furans (e.g. xylose into furfural).
  • The plan of Biorizon is to run a demonstration plant by 2022.

Dr. Sangyong Kim of KITECH (Korean Institute of Industrial Technology) follows with the Diacids and Diols as sources of precursor materials for biobased aromatics 

  • Dicarboxylic acids (succinic, itaconic and muconic acids) are the main interest and focus of the work of the KITECH Institute working in patnership with the private sector. Itaconic and muconic acids are obtained by fungal fermentation. 1.4 butanediol (BDO)  and biobased PBS are the  logical downstream valorisation  of succinic acid. PBS at affordable price is raising high interest from the automotive industry. Muconic acid is used to produced TPA (…..).
  • KITECH is also working on improving the process  for the manufacturing of Isosorbide, making it a “Non Sulphuric Acid” process, an advantage over the process Roquette in France are currently using to make isosorbide. Isosorbide is used as a bio-based plasticizer in substitution of Bisphenol A. It can also be used to make interesting photo-curable polymers.
  • Furanic alcools and acids derived from carbohydrates are also very much in the scope of KITECH as platform molecules for the derivation of novel polymers.
  • By and large, the work done by KITECH seemed to me very close to the centers of interest of TWB (Toulouse White Biotechnology) in France and TNO (Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) in The Netherlands.

Recent progress in lactic acid and PLA, presented by  Hugo VUURENS from Corbion (ex Purac), the n° 2 global supplier of PLA.

  • Corbion are specialized in making lactic acid from glucose and PLA, PDLA and PLLA from lactic acid. They operate a unique technology platform for fermentation. By 2017, Corbion will commission a 75,000 metric ton capacity  PLA plant in Thailand.
  • To make a kg of PLA requires only 1,25 kg of sugar vs 4 kg for bio-PE manufactured by Breskem in Brazil.
  • Corbion have been focusing on curing some functionality drawbacks of amorphous PLA, specifically its low temperature resistance (Tg=55°C) They developed PLA homopolymers like Stereo Complex PLA with Tm of 230°C, PDLA and PLLA with Tm of 180°C. These homopolymers are reportedly still very expensive and difficult to sell but Corbion is working hard to decrease the manufacturing cost and further increase their speed of crystalization, thus reducing the cycle time on the converting equipment.
  • PLA homopolymers have found applications in the automotive industry with AUDI of Germany, the coffee capsules industry with European Retailers and the coffee cups with Hutamaki of Finland.
  • Additionally Corbion is developing FDCA for bio PEF from a fermentation platform.
  • Corbion is also producing succinic acid within a JV with BASF that subsequently produces bio-PBS.

Jan Ravenstijn, a known consultant in the sector of polymers and bio-polymers presents: 10  lessons learned from the history of polymer development 

  • Remember that it takes more than 20 years for a novel polymer to fid its market and get out of infancy and childhood.
  • Be modest in pricing new polymers and, at least, show the potential customer what will be the price evolution as volumes buildup, or else risk to kill the product upfront.
  • Do not underestimate the requirements for purity, smell and color from the start not to impair access to the food and medical markets.
  • Adopt a step by step approach in scaling-up both from a technical but also from a market demand viewpoint. Do not underestimate obstacles. Build demand before you build capacity. Depreciation fixed cost is a nasty business killer.
  • Importance of molecular topology: eg PHA is a family of products like PA (nylon) and it will take decades for each member of  the family to find it place around the market table
  • Anticipate societal issues (e.g. GMO feedstock, competition with the food chain, etc…), and gather precise and credible LCA data.
  • Product tolerance for processing and use conditions is paramount: do not anticipate the converters to accept to significantly deteriorate their performance (e.g. PLA again). Work well ahead and communication plans  to improve processability through nucleation and additivation. It takes decades to functionalise a novel polymer in order to give it access to new applications and markets (e.g. PVC, PP etc). it generally benefits from very early stage partnerships with end-users.
  • Understand Unique Selling Points (USPs)  for the whole value chain and when you talk bio-degradability, be clear about the temperature and humidity conditions.
  • Have strategy and tactical plans from the start and never base them on temporary political or fiscal measures
  • Provide supply security at low competitive intensity. The unique supplier position is not tenable unless you alleviate drawbacks with a costly/ working capital intensive supply security policy.

Dr Barbara Secchi, heading R&D for Bridgestone, presents an action plan for the use of sustainable materials at the Japanese tyre maker.

  • Tyre industry has a big role to play in making the global economy sustainable as the 2050 projections for vehicles is 2 billions or approximately 10 billion tyres in circulation.
  • Bridgestone has engaged into 3 actions towards a 100% sustainable model: Reduce (eco design, half weight tyres), Reuse (retread tyres and air free concept), Expand the range of renewable resources to various products and producing regions (eg guayule from Mexico, Mahgreb and Northern Australia, Russian dandelion). In addition consider new cellulosic fibers and lignin aromatic derivatives.
  • The use of lignin as a substitute of carbon black has been evaluated but reportedly “does not work”.
  • Bridegestone’s Biorubber Process Research Center has recently been  inaugurated in Mesa, Arizona (USA). Research pathways include synthetic rubber from biobased butadiene and isoprene. In terms of timing, the horizon is 2020 to reach practical applications of those.

The Bio-PET and PEF story told by Dr Klaus Stadler from Coca Cola.

  • Coca Colas has reached volume sales of 1.9 billion servings per day. This should double by 2020 and the containers of course are of concern to Coca Cola. 60% of those are PET plastic containers. Hence the plant bottle project. Coca Cola is shooting for both recyclability and biodegradability. So far the MEG ingredient in PET is plant based (sugar based ethanol  from Brazil is the source). They are working on plant bottle 2.0 with Bio based PTA (the second component of PET forming 70% of the polymer). They are reportedly “not yet there”. Plant bottle 2.0 will be a drop-in also for recycling plants. All PET bottles will be plant bottles 1.0 by 2020. 2.0 version will take 5 to 8 more years to be deployed globally.
  • Coca Cola have adopted a holistic approach to drive  value and sustainable growth. Plant bottle packaging has proven to drive volume, value and brand love as well as to facilitate entries with key retailers.
  • Plant based bottle 1.0 is reported to be currently 20-30% more expensive than petro-based PET bottle and  less subject to crude oil volatility. The cost curve of this plant bottle is expected to cross the petro-based PET cost curve by 2020. Plant bottle 2.0 cost projections should follow the same commoditization law with a 10 year time difference.
  • Production in Europe would be impaired by the cost of biomass and Coca Cola plans to have their main production plants in Asia and the Americas.
  • Plant Bottle 2.0 development involves partnerships with Virent, Gevo and Avantium (the latter on PEF). PEF is not expected to be an across the board replacement option for bio based PET at this stage. PEF is easy to separate from PET in waste sorting lines equipped with infra-red detection.
  • There is no price premium associated with the plant bottle deployment. Retailers and customers expect Coca Cola to “do it right” without willing to pay more for their product but obviously willing to drink more of it and more often as a reward to the brand.

Tayfun Buzkan and Motoki Maekawa from Toyota Boshoku Europe (the material branch of Toyota group), present “Sustainability lightweight material in the automotive industry “.

  • Their presentation focuses on door panels made of plant fibers (flax, hemp, kenaf) mixed 50/50 with commodity plastics fibers (PP) to make fleece.
  • This fleece is then simultaneously pressed and injected with PP connecting plugs that are attached to the PP fibers in the fleece, creating a so called “core adhesion”. This adhesive-less process saves material and weight and is entirely robotized. A video projection of the process very convincingly proves the case. Toyota Boshoku already delivered it to auto makers outside the Toyota group.

The presentation of Aonilex* by Japanese corporation Kaneka, a supplier of caustic soda and PVC as well as specialty polymers and food ingredients.

  • Aonilex bio-polymer is a new business development of Kaneka combining oil processing technology and polymer processing technology. Aonilex belongs to the PHBH family combining P3HB and P3HH made from palm oil as raw material through a fermentation process.
  • Aonilex has excellent biodegradable capabilities under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. it is certified OK compost by Vinçotte. it is at the same time water resistant and heat resistant. therefore it can be used in outdoor applications (eg mulch film, microbeads for cosmetics, trimming lines for gardening, all applications requiring particles of plastics to biodegrade in the soils.
  • Kanaka operates a pilot plant of 1000 mt capacity and plans to double capacity this year.

The  late afternoon of day two brings light on two additional subjects “bio-based material for 3D printing” and “bio-based plastics and the environment”

Prof Christian Bonten from IKT Institute for Kunststoff Technik- University of Stuttgart presents 3D Printing of bio-based plastics. 

  • A polymer does not make a plastic. A plastic requires compounding of the right polymers and additivation. The compounding process itself is important for the desired dispersion and orientation of the components and plays a key role in the properties of the plastic obtained.
  • 3D printing requires CAD data to be sliced and prepared adequately.
  • The technologies  of 3D printing are numerous. The one currently referred to as “3D Printing” is actually Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). This technology always delivers a stepped structure that might only be visible under the microscope.Std filament diameter is 1.75 to 3.0 mm with mandatorily a very regular round profile. The material needs to be reelable, not slippery, with a viscosity low enough to allow entanglements across the boundary layers.
  • As far as biobased plastics are concerned, a collaborative project is currently being run by IKT to develop the right compounds. PLA is reported to be a very good candidate, easy to use and easy to blend.

Carmen Michels from FKuR Kunststoff GmbH follows with a presentation on “Wood and bamboo compounds with PLA for 3D printing”.

  • FKuR started as a research institute on materials development and recycling which focused on biopolymers including the development of proprietary compounds, production and delivery to customers together with the relevant technical support.
  • FKuR are also distributing Braskem (Brazil)  and Evonik (Germany) biosourced polymers.
  • FKuR works in cooperation with Helian polymers in Venlo (The Netherlands), a producer of high quality filaments for 3D printing with a very rich testing platform of 3D printers. The partnership resulted into tailor made blends (PLA and PHA) for FDM type 3D printing (now open source field as a lot of patents have expired).
  • Different filler and reinforcing materials provide more options for design, quality and performance. The ductility of PLA is, for example, increase by blending it with woodfill or bamboofill. This development allowed to obtain woodlike objects with excellent aesthetics via FDM- 3D printing.
  • Similarly, bronze powder compounded in PLA are being developed to allow printing of bronze like objects.

Roland Essel from Nova-Institute changed subject to take a very broad and documented view of a burning subject:  “Microplastics in the environment”

  • On this subject, you can valuably refer to the charts presented that are all available freely from the web site of nova-Institute http://nova-institut.de/bio/index.php?tpl=graflist&lng=en
  • Microplastic’s definition is a debris that would have a diameter inferior to 1 mm down to 0.001 mm.
  • 56 to 75% of all marine debris are plastics including rubber and elastomer particles from the abrasion of tyres.
  • These particles are present in all seas and oceans and the amount going to those every year via rivers is increasing.

Lisbeth van Cauwenberghe from Ghent University adds a dash of anxiety to the subject: Impacts of animal and human consumption of marine micro-plastics 

  • Filter feeding bivalve are the animal mostly exposed to micro-plastics as they filter costal waters that contains significant amounts of those particles. Ghent university has done extensive research on the concentration of micro plastics in bivalves from wild gathering or aquaculture. Findings are that the average consumer of bivalves in Europe  would absorb 1000 micro-particules per year. The consequence of this  for human health is still very much unknown but we know for sure that they translocate into the mammal guts and result into troubles  incl. Intestine cancer.
  • Lisbeth finishes her speech saying she nevertheless has not given up eating bivalves that are part of the diet in Holland!

Prof Christian Bonten, University of Stuttgart, is back on the floor to talk about the subject “Degradation of plastics over time: risks and chances”.

  • We need plastics to save weight and energy in a significant number of applications including LED. Plastic, like other materials, need an end of life scheme.
  • Degradation mechanisms of plastics boil down to the  degradation of polymers and fillers and additives they are made of. Degradation is a consequence of ageing of the components. For polymers it translates into chain cleavage  and depolymerisation back to loose monomers. This degradation is  stemming from  mechanical load , high temperature, UV radiation, oxydation etc.
  • Each polymer has a threshold starting from which it start to degrade and fragment. Some additive like Oxos can engineer a quicker degradation of polymers through oxydation. This does not mean these polymer really disappear. They are just fragmented into micro particles. Some enzymes can digest polymer chains and metabolize polymers into CO2 and water. There must be a threshold for chain léngth that allows metabolic digestion. This threshold is not determined yet.
  • Biodegradation tests of plastics generally compare the curve of the tested plastic with cellulose as a benchmark as cellulose biodegrades quickly.
  • Biodegradable bioplastics would take 6 to 12 months to degrade in sea water and landfill; resp 1 month in fresh water; resp 12 to 24 months in home composting with the presence of funghi; and finally a few weeks to a few months in industrial composting at temperatures of 60°C.

A Roundtable close the day around the question : Can bio-based plastics benefit from their ability to biodegrade?

  • Michael Carus introduces the discussion with another presentation of the charts assembled by nova-Institute showing the degradation of various biopolymers under various temperature and environmental conditions. Question is “should we encourage market pull measures? E.g. should the legislation make the use of bio-based biodegradable plastic films mandatory for certain applications like mulch film?
  • Panellists agree the word bioplastic should be abandoned as it is not legally defined (yet) whereas bio-based is and biodegradable is.
  • But by and large, legislation is not expected to be a quick and easy path to what is needed. To-the-point communication and education of the public is paramount and class actions against liars, polluters and companies that misbehave are likely to be more efficient, although generally more costly too.
  • We all agree we will not give-up and continue our pro-active fight.
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