EU R&D and Innovations

Will Switzerland Disrupt the PEF Market?

Researchers at the ETH Zurich University have improved the method to produce PEF drastically.

Soft drinks and water bottles are usually made from fossil-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is highly recyclable but many bottles end up landfilled, incinerated or in the ocean. 50 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are produced annually.

PEF was invented by Avantium (NL) and is the best material to replace PET. Avantium signed a joint venture with BASF (Germany) called Synvina to build a factory in Antwerpen (BE) to produce FDCA, the building block for PEF. Mitsui  (Japan) made a trusted partnership with Synvina to commercialise PEF in Asia.

Why is PEF better than PET?

PEF is very similar to PET but consists of 100% renewable raw materials such as forestry and agricultural wastes. PEF and PET are not biodegradable. PEF bottles are better because they:

  • require less material;
  • are lighter;
  • are more stable;
  • make beverages last longer,
  • can be incinerated in a CO2 neutral way (incineration of PET brings additional CO2 in atmosphere).
  • PEF could replace multilayer materials that are difficult to recycle.

Why the Swiss Method is better than Avantium’s YXY technology?

The problem with PEF is that it takes lots of time and energy to be produced. The new method is a serious upgrade on Avantium’s technology and will enable the commercial breakthrough of PEF.

The ETH Zurich University team consisted of Jan-Georg Rosenboom, Peter Fleckenstein and Giuseppe Storti. The Swiss method is better because

  • it reduces production time from several days to few hours;
  • discolouration at the end of the process is avoided;
  • at molecular level, the polymers look like a ring instead of ropes. The rings are tied to each other and have no loose ends;
  • the rings can be polymerised more quickly and in a controlled way;
  • no by-products are produced in the production process;
  • the Swiss PEF has superior material properties;
  • it reduced the energy requirements to produce PEF.

The “ring opening” method allows precise adjustment of product quality and can also be used for other types of (bio)plastics.

ETH Zurich scientists are working with Sulzer to see how the the new method could be implemented at industrial level. Sulzer is the company that provided key equipments for the Total Corbion plant in Thailand.

Last but not least…

The Synvina plant will be built in Antwerpen and will have a production capacity of 50.000 tonnes per year. However, Avantium announced in January 2018 that they will extend the pilot phase and delay the completion of the plant by 2 or 3 years. The plant will only be operational in 2023 or 2024. This is a unique opportunity for the Swiss to get into the game.

CLOSING REMARKS

  • This development will bring Switzerland into the Bioplastics race.
  • This discovery may shake up Avantium’s ivory tower. Avantium invented the wheel, the Swiss invented the bicycle.
  • Will the Swiss need one or several big partners to kickstart their bioplastics journey or will they go solo? Would Mitsubishi Chemicals be interested to counter the Synvina Mitsui partnership in the Asian market? You will know by following bioplasticsnews.com

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