Dutch chemist Gert-Jan Gruter and his team at Amsterdam-based chemicals company Avantium have developed an environmentally-friendly alternative: a plant-based bioplastic called PEF that requires no petrochemicals, is completely recyclable and cuts associated CO2 emissions by up to 70%.
For this achievement, Gert-Jan Gruter has been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2017 as one of three finalists in the category “Small and medium-sized enterprises”. The winners of the 12th edition of the European Patent Office (EPO)’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Venice on June 15. “Gert-Jan Gruter has developed a new method that for developing bioplastics on a commercial scale,” said EPO President Benoît Battistelli, announcing the European Inventor Award 2017 finalists. “His invention is a major step forward in reducing the environmental impact from plastics, and it demonstrates that we can overcome some of our biggest challenges through innovation.”
Gert-Jan Gruter nominated for EPO Innovation Prize
After earning a PhD in Organometallic Chemistry from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Gruter began his career at DSM Research BV as a group leader in charge of researching polyolefins catalysts. He spent many years in conventional petroleum-based plastics research, and worked with some of the biggest companies in the chemical industry. Having witnessed the toll fossil-fuel extraction and refinement was taking on our planet, he took the decision to try to come up with new, alternative technologies, which could be used on a large scale.
“To make the transition from fossil feedstock to sustainable plastics, we have to rely on biomass,” says Gruter. “But for this we need new materials. That’s the only way to bring about this change.”
He joined Avantium in 2000 as Vice President Technology and became the company’s Chief Technology Officer in 2004, a position he holds today. In 2016 he was appointed part-time Professor “Industrial Sustainable Chemistry” at the University of Amsterdam. Gruter has taken aim at the fourth most commonly used plastic polymer, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) best known for its massive use in the ubiquitous plastic bottles . The theoretical possibility to create an adequate PET substitute has been around since the early part of the 21st century. However, an efficient method to create large amounts of the necessary intermediary chemical, furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), remained elusive. “Over the past 100 years, more than 1 000 publications and patents have been published on FDCA and its precursors,” says Gruter. “Neither research nor any of these patents had resulted in a viable method of producing this material in large quantities, and at competitive prices.” Gruter and his team took a new approach and developed a chemical, catalytic process that efficiently creates FDCA from simple plant sugars (starch). The process, which the Dutch chemicals company dubs YXY (pronounced “icksy”) has paved the way for a new bio-based polymer: polyethylene furanoate (PEF).
Gruter has authored or co-authored 30 scientific papers and is listed as the inventor or co-inventor on more than 100 patents and patent applications, both in Europe and around the world (17 of the European patents relate to Avantium’s YXY technology).
Petroleum-based PET’s flexibility, light weight and robustness have helped make it the leading polymer for beverage bottling, but the plant-based PEF offers all of these advantages and more. PEF, for instance, has greater material rigidity than its petroleum-derived counterpart. The result: bottles use less plastic, cutting down on manufacturing costs, a boon for companies and consumers.
PEF is also sturdier and has better barrier properties. Beverage containers made of PEF keep their contents fresher for longer by blocking the passage of oxygen into the bottle ten times more effectively than PET. For carbonated drinks, PEF holds in five times more CO2. PEF’s gas barrier properties are matched by important environmental and efficiency benefits. Manufacturing bottles made from this polymer requires about 70% less energy and releases about one-third of the carbon emissions of PET.
Founded in 2000 by a consortium of companies led by Royal Dutch Shell, Avantium honed a strong R&D focus through the chemical research services it offers to partner companies. This experience has helped the firm develop innovative technologies, such PEF and its YXY process, and license this technology for large-scale production. In March 2017, Avantium went public, raising EUR 103 million in new capital and valuing the company at around EUR 300 million.
The company, which today has some 150 employees, is well on its way to making PEF a viable and widely-accepted alternative to PET. It has operated a pilot plant for PEF since 2011. To bring the technology to market, Avantium has partnered with several leading industry players in the food and bottle manufacturing sectors, and also formed a joint venture with BASF in 2016, named Synvina, for the production and marketing of PEF. The JV plans to build a first industrial-scale plant in Antwerp, Belgium, with a production capacity of up to 50 000 tons per year. The goal is to bring PEF bottles to market by 2021 and secure a foothold in the plastic bottle-making industry, worth an estimated EUR 32 to 37 billion annually.