Virent, Coca-Cola hit key production milestone with the 100% biobased Plant Bottle 

June 4, 2015 |

CocaCola-WC2014Production goes from pilot to demonstration scale as Coca-Cola “makes it happy,” showcasing its newest Plant Bottles at Expo Milan.

News has arrived from Europe that Coca-Cola is displaying 100% bio-based content Plant Bottles produced using paraxylene produced at Virent’s Madison, Wisconsin demonstration plant — the first demonstration scale production of a PET plastic bottle made entirely from plant-based materials.

The bottles were showcased as part of The Coca-Cola Company’s pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 a global showcase for sustainable innovation. Far Eastern New Century worked with Virent and The Coca-Cola Company to convert the BioFormPX to bio-PET resin.

The Coca-Cola Plant Bottle Backstory

PlantBottle packaging is The Coca-Cola Company’s vision to develop a more responsible plant-based alternative to packaging traditionally made from fossil fuels and other non-renewable materials. PlantBottle packaging uses patented technology that converts natural sugars found in plants into the ingredients for making PET plastic bottles. The packaging looks, functions and recycles like traditional PET but has a lighter footprint on the planet and its scarce resources. The company has been developing an extensive set of partnerships to bring a technology to market.

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Virent is one of three companies working with Coca-Cola on the technology.

The others are Colorado-based Gevo and Avantium, which is based in the Netherlands. Last  June, news arrived that Gevo is now selling paraxyleme to Toray, one of the world’s leading producers of fibers, plastics, films, and chemicals. It’s producing PX from isobutanol, one of its three molecules in production (the others are jet fuel and iso-ocrane) at its pilot plant in Silsbee, Texas. Toray expects to produce fibers, yarns, and films from Gevo’s PX.

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Also last June, Avantium announced that it had closed a financing round of $50 million from a consortium of iconic strategic players. This unique consortium consists of Swire Pacific, The Coca-Cola Company, DANONE, ALPLA, and existing shareholders. Follow on investments were made by existing shareholders Sofinnova Partners, Capricorn Venture Partners, ING Corporate Investments, Aescap Venture, Navitas Capital, Aster Capital and De Hoge Dennen Capital.

Another potential entrant in the market is Anellotech, which has developed a clean technology platform for inexpensively producing BTX molecules. Commercial scale applications are expected by 2019; last May, Anellotech announced start-up of its pyrolysis pilot plant, and that it is making available kilogram-scale quantities of green BTX to strategic partners for downstream development.

Nancy Quan, Global Research and Development Officer, The Coca-Cola Company said “Today is a pioneering milestone within our Company’s packaging portfolio. Our vision was to maximize game changing technology, using responsibly sourced plant-based materials to create the globe’s first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made entirely from renewable materials.” The Coca-Cola Company said it plans to continue investment in its award-winning PlantBottle packaging.

The Virent / Coca Cola backstory

The companies partnered in 2011, signing multi-year, multi-million dollar Joint Development and Supply Agreements to scale-up Virent’s plant-based Paraxylene (PX), trademarked BioFormPX, as a route to commercially viable, 100% renewable, 100% recyclable PlantBottle PET resin. In the past, Coca Cola’s PlantBottles have included only 30% plant-based plastic. Virent’s chemical allows the remaining 70% of the bottle to be plant-based.

Back in 2012, Virent announced the issuance of five new U.S. patents covering aspects of its catalytic BioForming platform. Three of the patents cover the production of various liquid fuels and chemicals related to its recent announced partnership with The Coca-Cola Company and its ongoing partnership with Royal Dutch Shell. The additional two patents are directed to the production of a range of other industrial chemicals and chemical intermediates using Virent’s BioForming process. These patents join the over 175 domestic and foreign issued and pending applications in Virent’s portfolio representing more than 25 different technology families.

Last year, Virent’s partnership with Coca Cola was extended with an additional investment of an undisclosed amount for Virent to scale up production of the paraxylene chemical which Coca Cola is using in their PlantBottles. The investment will fund purchase and installation of new equipment that is needed to chemically produce and purify paraxylene from one of the byproducts of Virent’s biofuel production process.

In the course of its development work over the last few years, Virent has progressed its PX technology to commercial readiness and improved the process economics. Virent has run its demonstration system to fulfill customer fuel and chemical orders since it started operation in 2010. Virent currently has the capability to produce large quantities of BioFormPX paraxylene and other bio-based aromatic chemicals (benzene, toluene, and mixed xylenes) for applications such as packaging, textiles and construction. Virent also has produced sizable biofuels samples (gasoline, jet and diesel) for customer sampling and product development.

A world short on naphtha and why that impacts plastic bottles – and what is naphtha anyway?

How do you make a clear plastic out of crude oil, anyway? Most plastics are special classes of hydrocarbons — and plastic bottles used for soft drinks are no exception. In the trade, they’re described at PET bottles — that’s polyethylene terephthalate, if you like to practice tongue-twisters. If you’ve had any cloth, seat cushions or pillow filling using Dacron fibers, that’s PET, too.

PET is generally made from two compounds — monoethylene glycol (MEG), which is manufactured at world-scale from biobased material, and paraxylene (PX), which to this point has been made almost exclusively from petroleum.

So, it’s a case of MEG + PX = PET.

Now PX is made from naphtha, a major petroleum intermediate, it’s known as one of the five major components of BTX (benzene, toluene, metaxylene, orthoxylene and paraxylene). More than 40 million tons of them are produced, it’s a $100 billion market, and growing at 4.4 percent per year.

PET is a monster chemical in its own right, representing 16 million metric tons and $48.1B in sales in 2014, according to Smithers Pira, and plastic bottles account for 12.5 million tons of that, including 5.45 million tons for bottled water and 5.17 million tons for carbonated soft drinks.

One exception to note. In Avantium’s case, their YXY technology is a 2-step chemical, catalytic process to convert sugars to Furan-dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a biobased alternative to terephthalic acid (TA). Avantium focuses its efforts on using FDCA to produce the polyester, Polyethylene-furanoate (PEF), a 100% biobased material that could replace PET in large markets such as bottles, fiber and film.

Making PET by new means, or replacing it — it’s a tasty target for new manufacturers just on the economics, but there’s a supply dimension to the equation. The biggest reason that manufacturers produce naphtha is that naphtha-cracking has been used for years to make ethylene, the world’s most widely-used chemical. But these days, more and more manufacturers are switching to natural gas as a feedstock. Leaving the world potentially short on naphtha capacity — which affects the production and cost of BDO, butadiene and, yes, BTX.

Hence, companies that use BDO to made Spandex and other materials, and companies that use paraxylene to make plastic bottles, have both economic and environmental sustainability in mind when they go shopping for new technologies.

Next steps

As Virent CEO Lee Edwards put it, “Coca-Cola’s support of our plans for the BioFormPX material in the next generation of PlantBottle packaging is critical in attracting manufacturing investment from the PET supply chain.” Which just about says it all — several manufacturers, including Virent, Gevo and Avantium, are out there looking for investment towards commercial-scale operations with renewable PX as a target.

Who are the major PET players?

Far Eastern New Century (FENC) is one major player we mentioned above, and Toray, and ALPLA. M&G is a global leader too — investors they are in Beta Renewables and using Proesa technology they are building a bio-based MEG production facility in China. We’ve yet to see what plans they have, if any, in renewable PET.

Other players include BP Aromatics, Cepsa, DAK Americas, Eastman Chemical, Equipolymers Indorama, Invista, JBF Global, Lotte Chemical, Neogroup, Novapet and Selenis, to name a few. Which is to say, a whole bunch of candidates — none have which yet apparently seen the compelling combination of customer pull and new technology economics to pull the trigger on an commercial-scale investment.

The Bottom Line

The 100% bio-based, all-renewable Plant Bottle — it’s coming closer, though the industry has been waiting for some time for an announcement of a commercial-scale project.

So far, it’s been a case of Gevo partnering with Toray, Avantium with ALPLA and now we see work by Virent with FENC. It’s a sector to keep a close eye on — a lot of the players are lining up, and with several technologies competing and still seeing investment from partners (signaling milestone achievement), there’s a good chance that one or more will break through to scale in this decade.

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