Leaps and bounds in sustainable plastics and nylons: U Wisconsin, Genomatica, Aquafil, Anellotech, Suntory, ADM, DuPont in the mix

January 23, 2018 |

It’s been a big week in plastics and nylons, all right — not only for those who value sustainability attributes, but for fans of lower costs and higher performance, too. Let’s look at 4 Biggies makin’ a stir.

Wisconsin researchers report bioplastic precursor breakthrough

In Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic and his team report a high-yield, economical route to furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a precursor to bioplastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF) and a number of polyesters and polyurethanes.

PEF is a viable alternative to the ubiquitous, petroleum-based plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but the high cost of producing FDCA has so far limited its use.

“Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a UW-Madison graduate student in chemical and biological engineering and study co-author. “You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.” The team’s process uses gamma-valerolactone, a plant-derived solvent, which is easily separated from FDCA upon cooling.

The team’s estimates its process currently produces FDCA at $1,490 per ton, and with tweaks they could get that figure down to $1,310 per ton—making their FDCA cost-competitive petroleum-based alternatives. The work was published in a recent issue of Science Advances.

Aquafil, Genomatica partner on bio-nylon for sustainable apparel, carpets and fibers

From Italy, news broke Monday night that Aquafil and Genomatica announced a multi-year agreement to create sustainable caprolactam, a key ingredient to producing 100 percent sustainable nylon.  Aquafil will provide R&D collaboration and development funding, and gains an option for a commercial plant.

Interesting development. Nylon intermediates are easy to target, been tough to hit.

The Genomatica process

Genomatica’s GENO CPL process aims to provide an environmentally-friendly way to make caprolactam with better economics, including for smaller-scale plants. Additionally, it will enable licensees and their customers to differentiate themselves by offering a more sustainable bio-based product whose performance will be fully comparable with nylon made from crude oil-derived caprolactam, and which will not require any machine or process adjustments by the nylon supply chain.

The Aquafil sustainable nylon backstory

Aquafil is a large producer of nylon 6 and launched the ECONYL Regeneration System in 2011 to produce nylon made from 100 percent regenerated waste. A large and growing number of globally recognized sportswear, fashion, luxury and carpet brands choose ECONYL as the sustainable ingredient for their product. Like the ECONYL process, the GENO CPL process eliminates the significant amount of by-products common to most crude oil-derived caprolactam production, and will allow producers to diversify their sources in terms of raw material.

Why cool?

As a friend of the Digest theorized, “People feel like nylon is all around them – they wear nylon athletic clothing and walk on nylon carpet, so our work will be seen as improving everyday products very directly. And Aquafil is a known player and in particular a leader in nylon production and sustainability.

Anellotech raises $9M from Suntory

In New York, beverage giant Suntory has invested an additional $9 million in Anellotech’s Bio-TCat technology. This latest tranche, which is part of a new $15 million package based on Anellotech achieving specific milestones, brings Suntory’s total investment in Anellotech to more than $25 million to date.

Anellotech’s Bio-TCat Process will produce cost-competitive renewable aromatic chemicals (benzene, toluene and xylenes, “BTX”) from non-food biomass for use in manufacturing plastics such as polyester, nylon, polycarbonate, polystyrene, or for renewable transportation fuels. Anellotech recently announced the completion of the commissioning of its 25 meter tall TCat-8 pilot plant, and has commenced the critical development program to validate process economics and obtain necessary data for commercial plant design. And we covered that development here.

The alliance with Suntory, one of Anellotech’s principal strategic investment partners, began in 2012 with the goal of enabling the development and commercialization of cost-competitive 100 percent bio-based plastics for use in beverage bottles. Suntory currently uses 30 percent plant-derived materials for its Mineral Water Suntory Tennensui brands and is pursuing the development of a 100 percent bio-based PET bottle through this alliance, as part of its commitment to sustainable business practices.

Better shelf life for bottles – a big deal from DuPont and ADM

And we’re keeping an eye on DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland who jointly picked up the 2017 Innovation in Bioplastics Award. from the Bioplastics Council for their process to produce furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME), a biobased monomer, from fructose.

The kicker? The technology developed by DuPont and ADM is a more efficient and simple process than traditional conversion approaches and results in higher yields, lower energy usage, lower capital expenditures and better performance.

One of the first polymers under development that will use FDME is polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF), a novel polyester also made from DuPont’s proprietary Bio-PDO™ (1,3-propanediol). PTF is a 100 percent renewable and recyclable polymer that, when used to make bottles and other beverage packages, substantially improves gas-barrier properties compared to other polyesters. The companies have built a 60-ton pilot plant in Decatur, Illinois to demonstrate the process.

The Bottom Line

Think big brand roll-outs of sustainable bottling, apparel, carpets and fibers — and soon. There’s enough activity under the hood (and, in cases like Suntory, in plain sight) to say “it’s coming, real soon, to s store near you.”

What we like is the presence of major brands — not only proven biomaterials developers like Genomatica and DuPont that have a strong record in biomaterials (DuPont’s PDO and Genomatica’s BDO). But also, these are major targets and we’re talking here about reduced costs, new functionality.

That’s the kind of performance improvement that is universally compelling in the industry, even to those who don’t value new materials simply for a sustainable attribute.

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