PEF exists since 1951 and has gained renewed attention since the US Department of Energy (DOE) proclaimed its building block, FDCA, as a potential bio-based replacement for purified terephthalic acid (PTA) in 2004.
There’s a lot of expectations for PEF:
- The growth of the bioplastics sector relies mostly upon Bio-PP and PEF for the next 5 years.
- PEF is expected to replace PET in the production of plastic bottles.
Read more: Polyethylene Furanoate PEF
Avantium has had a remarkable journey. Their CEO won the Bioplastics News Person of the Year 2020 award.
Avantium placed the bar very high for many years. They’re now expected to revolutionise the bioplastics and plastic bottle industry.
They’ve been parading the world with their key project: the construction of a large scale FDCA plant.
There’s a lot of pressure on Avantium.
There are similarities between Avantium and NatureWorks.
Natureworks managed to disrupt the plastics industry 20 years ago.
A joint venture named Cargill Dow Polymers was established in 1997 by Cargill and Dow Chemicals. It started operations in 2001 with the world’s first PLA plant built in Nebraska (USA). Cargill brought the agribusiness experience and Dow brought the plastic business experience to the table. However, Dow left the ship in 2005 and the company name was changed to NatureWorks.
Nobody believed it was possible to produce plant-based plastics industrially and NatureWorks proved everyone wrong.
Was it all sparkle and glamour? No, they lost billions of Dollars on the way but Cargill has deep pockets.
The reason why NatureWorks didn’t build a second PLA plant is probably because Cargill lost too much money with PLA.
Read more: Who is NatureWorks?
To make a long story. Although I hope to be wrong, I don’t think the PEF project is workable. Here are the reasons why I believe it’s a fairy tale.
- BASF left the ship
The FDCA project was initially called Synvina, a joint venture between Avantium and BASF. However, BASF had an option to leave the ship in their agreement. They threw the towel in the ring on the last day of their option.
FDCA is the building block of PEF and PEF is supposed to replace PET in the production of plastic bottles.
PET bottles are the only success story when it comes to mechanical recycling of plastics. From all the plastics products in the world, Avantium choose the only one that can close the loop. PET bottles are fully recyclable and it’s possible to produce bottles with recycled PET (rPET).
On the other hand, it’s not sure if PEF can be mechanically recycled at an industrial scale.
In addition, PET bottles are currently collected separately. What will happen with the PEF bottles? People will not be able to differentiate between PEF and PET bottles. They will throw their PEF bottles with the PET bottles and thus contaminate the collection of PET bottles.
- Production Capacity
The annual demand for PET by the European plastic converters is around 4.5 million ton.
The Avantium FDCA flagship plant would produce 5.000 tons of FDCA (furandicarboxylic acid) per year. This capacity won’t be enough to produce enough PEF for a single West European country, let alone a single European city.
- Business model
You have two types of softwares: Proprietary vs open-source. A single company controls everything with proprietary software. While everyone can put their fingers in the pie with an open source software.
Avantium will probably try to market their product / technology like a proprietary software. I’m not sure Avantium has the capacity to take on this challenge.
- Business Acumen and Marketing
However, Avantium is not Cargill and there is no partner like Dow Chemical. Avantium used to be a research centre that went public on the stock exchange. They’ve never marketed anything successfully.
Avantium hasn’t been able to deploy a succesful marketing strategy either.
- Time is money
Avantium has lost too much time talking, parading and calculating. Avantiums is affraid. You can see it.
They haven’t produced a single kg of PEF yet. They’ should have gone for it a few years ago.
- EU Bio-economy
A big chunk of Avantium‘s plant will be financed with EU tax payer money. A big chunk of the EU bio-economy is funded with EU tax payer money.
Very few bio-economy applications subsidised with EU public money have hit the market successfully.