Avalon’s bid to replace carcinogenic formaldehyde

February 5, 2017 |

BD TS 020617 avalon cover sm

In Switzerland, Avalon Industries has launched a research project to replace formaldehyde in phenol-formaldehyde resins with a bio-based, non-toxic platform chemical 5-HMF, The R&D partner is the Institute for Materials and Wood Technology at the Bern University of Applied Sciences.

The research project, ‘Development of a formaldehyde-free phenol type adhesive system for the manufacturing of plywood’, aims to come up with a formaldehyde-free, sustainable and non-toxic adhesive for industrial use in the wood-processing industry. The project will also investigate the replacement of phenol with lignin in order to develop 100% bio-based lignin-HMF resins.

Meanwhile, you may find yourself wondering what the fuss is about. 5-H, er, what? Why should anyone care?

The quest for the clear plastic Plant Bottle

313022Consider, then, something you’ve seen for years but probably never remarked upon. When you order a standard bottle of Coca-Cola, for example, let’s say 16 ounces or more, you’re seeing mostly clear plastic bottling, and some of that is the famed Plant Bottle.

But if you order, say, a mixer-sized soft drink, say 6 ounces of tonic water or Coke —and you see these all the time in airport lounges — the container is an aluminium can.

Why is that, exactly? Turns out there are performance reasons. Traditional bottles are made from PET clear plastic, and it doesn’t work as a structural barrier material at very small sizes. But, the novel material PEF does, in all testing to date.

So think of all those cans that could be immediately converted to sustainable, cyclical bio-based materials. That’s just a start — and PEF works in all those other PET use cases as well. So, it’s a market expansion for plastics, and generally from a weight and transparency basis, everyone preferes to use plastic over metal or glass. PEF can also be used in the textile industry or the medical technology sector.

The 5-HMF backstory

For those with a technical bent, 5-HMF as a platform chemical contains both an aldehyde and an alcohol functional group. The oxidation of 5-HMF to FDCA (furandicarboxylic acid) forms the basis for the manufacture of polyethylene furanoate, also known at PEF.

5-HMF also has applications in the pharmaceutical industry, as an API (active pharmaceutical ingredient), and also has uses in foodstuffs and in the agrochemical sector.  In fact, in 2004, the US Department of Energy classed FDCA as one of the 12 most important platform chemicals in the world.

This research project? The target is new ways to employ 5-HMF as a substitute for the carcinogenic formaldehyde.

Especially good news since the formaldehyde-based resin manufacturing industry has been facing an increasing challenge since formaldehyde was classified as carcinogenic and mutagenic in June 2014. This classification has far-reaching and immediate consequences for the furniture industry, among others.

So the search has been on. Overall, 47 million tonnes of formaldehyde are produced worldwide — think “glue”s and impregnating resins for wood-based materials. Think “particle board”, “plywood panels” and “chipboard” — right away you see why the furniture industry is, ahem, eager for alternatives.

Unknown-1But take a look around your home or office, or the room you find yourself reading in right now. Mentally subtract all the plywood, chipboard and anything that smacks of an adhesive somewhere. The entire physical world of buildings and homes as we know it rely on these materials. And while the furor over formaldehyde isn’t going to rival the problems discovered over the years in using asbestos as a building material — everyone’s eager to get to the next generation of materials, and not just eco-minded consumers.

As a fuel, too?

Yep, 5-HMF is a precursor to DMF fuel, which has drop-in characteristics, can be cheap to make from 6C sugars, high octane (an estimated RON of 119), and 40% higher energy density than ethanol. More on that here. But there needs to be more research on the impact of DMF emissions from a lifecycle basis.

The Avalon backstory

If you’re well read-up on your Arthurian tales,. you’ll recognize Avalon as the legendary island from which the magical sword Excalibur was made. You get the ancient British throne for figuring out a way of extracting Excalibur from the stone. In this case, one stands to make zillions from figuring out how to extract 5-HMF from a sugar. The reward seems comparable, but the ancient Britons had prettier names for things than 5-HMF.

Since 2014, subsidiary AVA Biochem has been producing 5-HMF for the research and speciality chemicals markets. We reported on the latest in AVA-CO2’s move to replace formaldehyde shows the endurin’ allure in furans, here.

Meanwhile, AVA is pleased and delighted, they say. Well that makes sense. “We’re delighted to lead yet another project developing non-toxic resins,” says Thomas Kläusli, Chief Marketing Officer at Avalon Industries. “The aim of this project is to develop a formaldehyde-free, sustainable phenol-HMF adhesive for industrial use in the wood-processing industry. We consider 5-HMF to be the most promising formaldehyde alternative for future resin production. In addition to replacing formaldehyde, we will also be studying the replacement of phenol with lignin in order to achieve a truly 100% bio-based adhesive.”

Also in the race for FDCA and 5-HMF

For one, Glucan Renewables. Glucan is producing furan derivatives from biomass.  The furfural platform will be used to launch other value-added co-products: 5-hydroxyl-methyl furfural (HMF) and downstream derivatives

And there’s xF Technologies. xF’s technology combines known chemical reactions of biomass with novel engineering and novel homogeneous catalysis to create valuable green products from waste material.

ADM and DuPont are in it to win it, too. In January, DuPont and ADM announced a new breakthrough process in producing FDME from fructose, with “the potential to expand the materials landscape in the 21st century with exciting and truly novel, high-performance renewable materials”, the companies said in a joint release.

And there’s Avantium. Avantium’s YXY technology converts plant-based sugars into Furanics building blocks. YXY enables the cost-competitive production of 100% biobased plastic materials and chemicals via chemical catalytic processes.

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