As a dedicated research program into biobased materials with advanced properties that is coordinated by the applied research institute Food and Biobased Research at Wageningen UR, its participants are industrial partners from the entire value chain, from raw material producers through end users. The program, which started in 2010 and is sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, brought its first eight projects to a successful close and was granted new funding in 2015 for a second round, this time for a total of nine projects.
An annual symposium is organized each year in Wageningen, featuring poster presentations of the latest project results and a conference program with speakers from all corners of the biobased industry. The focus of this year’s symposium, which took place on June 16th, was on the R&D on biobased materials in times of volatile oil prices and the Paris climate treaty (COP21) goals. As symposium chairman Jan Noordegraaf, managing director of Synbra Technology bv pointed out, there is a gaping chasm between the Paris Summit goals and the lack of implementation of even easily implemented measures in the Netherlands – and abroad – which needs to be addressed. And, what is the impact of ‘low oil’ on the development of biobased materials?
Keynote speaker Erik Hagberg, of Archer Daniels Midland Company – one of the largest agricultural processors in the world – talked about the opportunities presented by producing chemicals from domestic renewable resources. Because everything ADM does begins with agriculture, the company has made a strong commitment to the development of new technologies and chemicals for commercial production from agricultural resources. ADM is pursuing a two-pronged approach, devoting on the one hand the majority of developmental efforts to the creation of direct chemical replacements for petroleum-based chemicals, and on the other, to conducting research into bioadvantaged molecules such as FDME. Working in collaboration with DuPont, the company has developed a method for producing furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) from fructose. FDME is a high-purity derivative of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), one of the 12 building blocks identified by the U.S. Department of Energy that can be converted into a number of high-value, bio-based chemicals or materials that can deliver high performance in a number of applications.
For Dupont, the collaboration with ADM is giving the company access to ADM’s ingredients to make new polymers, said Ernst Poppe, business development manager at DuPont Performance Materials. Dupont’s new polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate – PTF – is based on FDCA from ADM, through an innovative new process yielding a 100% renewably sourced material. According to Poppe, PTF offers an excellent gas barrier, higher yields at lower operating costs compared to petroleum-based counterparts, and the possible to produce products with thinner walls, reducing material consumption and packaging weight while extending shelf life. Also: “Four additional polymer platforms are currently in scale-up this year for compound development and customer sampling,” Poppe added. “But I can’t say anything about that yet!”
Both Dupont and ADM are currently also taking part in the Biobased Performance Material’s HIPPIE project, which is aimed at the development of novel, biobased, isoidide containing polyesters at scale. The two other participants in the project are Holland Colours and Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research.
As to the effect of the oil price on the investment in biopolymer projects, Ulla Trommsdorff, of Sulzer Chemtech, a Swiss company specialized in separation, reaction and mixing technologies, said that it was a ‘challenging situation’. “It is critical to develop technology to cope with these constraints,” she said. “ Innovative solutions that deliver performance benefits are essential.”
Previously, Sulzer developed a ring opening process for the purification of lactide, which paved the way for further development in polymerization and processing of PLA polymers. The company is now looking at the development of a similar process for PEF. “The current process is a slow reaction, with by-products,” said Trommsdorff. “We hope to develop a process that yields no end groups, a high molecular weight, high reaction rates and requiring no solvents. This project is still at bench scale,” she said.
Hans Martens, lead scientist Technology Polymers at Sabic, talked about his company’s tefforts to contribute to the sustainable development of its customers’ applications, which had led, among other things, to the company’s taking a closer look at the usage of renewable materials in combination with polyolefins. One example is Sabic’s participation in the BPM-project investigating the development of industrial films from blends of thermoplastic starch and polyethylene. Aimed at extending shelf-life by improving the water and gas vapor barrier performance, the project, said Martens, shows that TPS can be used as a functional additive to tune the material properties, taking advantage of polar and non-polar properties. “You can tune the morphology,” he explained. “It’s very versatile. Using inherent properties such as polarity make such biopolymers valuable partners to polyolefins. Starch can indeed be used as barrier material in food packaging.”
The rest of the line-up included speakers from Reverdia, roofing materials manufacturer Icopal and Croda. Reverdia’s Lawrence Theunissen talked about the company’s role, as a producer of biobased succinic acid, in the development of enhanced-performance biobased materials, such as PBS for injection molding applications. At Icopal, efforts are focused on the search for non petroleum-based materials delivering the technical and functional properties of bitumen for use in roofing applications, while Croda discussed, among other things, its strategy of delivering what the customer wants – in a sustainable way. “We do this in our product design, through the use of sustainable raw materials and by providing sustainable benefits in use,” explained Hans Ridderikhof, global research and technology manager at Croda. “Our means of technical differentiation – we add value to naturally-derived raw materials. We work with what we have.”
Croda is currently taking part in the BPM MAGIC-project, aimed at the development of a biobased alternative for sound and vibration reducing materials in railway fastening systems. Croda’s oleochemical building blocks are used to provide newly-developed biomass-based elastomers with the required flexibility and water resistance.
The symposium closed with a panel discussion, moderated by Jan Noordegraaf. As this symposium made clear there is progress being made in the biobased world. However, major stride need to be made, in the form of continued investment and policies favoring the biobased economy, if the goals of the COP21 are to be reached. The continued funding and research of the BPM program is at least a step in the right direction.