U.S. Department of Energy announces $27M in plastics R&D, LanzaTech, Algenesis, BASF, Pepsi, Stora Enso, ADM, AltAir included

October 18, 2020 |

What does plastic have to do with the bioeconomy? Well, everything. It’s about taking plastic waste, breaking it down into building blocks and converting it into a valuable treasure and it’s about creating biobased plastics.

News from the U.S. Department of Energy on their $27 million in funding for plastics recycling and new biobased plastics is even more exciting because of big names involved like Algenesis, BASF, Pepsi, LanzaTech, Stora Enso and others.

In today’s Digest, details on the 12 projects, including biodegradable polyurethane products made from algae precursors, biocomposite thermoplastic polyurethanes, upscaling of non-recyclable plastic waste into CarbonSmart monomers, recyclable biomass-based polyesters, and more.

The Funding

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced over $27 million in funding for 12 projects that will support the development of advanced plastics recycling technologies and new plastics that are recyclable-by-design. As part of DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, these projects will also help improve existing recycling processes that break plastics into chemical building blocks, which can then be used to make new products.

The BOTTLE: Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment funding opportunity is jointly funded by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE) Bioenergy Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office. The projects are part of DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, which draws on the research capabilities of DOE National Laboratories, universities, and industry to accelerate innovations in energy-efficient plastics recycling technologies.

The selected projects will address a variety of research and development areas, including:

Highly Recyclable or Biodegradable Plastics: Develop new plastics that have improved performance attributes over a comparable existing plastic and can be cost-effectively recycled or biodegrade completely in the environment or in compost facilities.

Novel Methods for Deconstructing and Upcycling Existing Plastics: Generate energy-efficient recycling technologies (mechanical, chemical, or biological) that are capable of breaking plastic streams into intermediates which can be upgraded into higher value products.

BOTTLE Consortium Collaborations to Tackle Challenges in Plastic Waste: Create collaborations with the BOTTLE Laboratory Consortium to further the long-term goals of the Consortium and the Plastics Innovation Challenge.

The Projects

Here’s an overview of all the projects at a glance:

The following projects were selected under Topic 1a: Novel Bio-Based Plastics: Designing Highly Recyclable or Biodegradable Bio-Based Plastics:

  • Iowa State University (Ames, IA) – Trojan Horse Repeat Sequences for Triggered Chemical Recycling of Polyesters for Films and Bottles – DOE funding: $2,165,000
    • Partners include 3M, Archer Daniels Midland, and Diageo.
  • University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, CA) – Production of high-performance biodegradable polyurethane products made from algae precursors – DOE Funding: $2,000,000
    • Partners include Algenesis, BASF, Pepsi, Reef, and University of California – Davis

The following projects were selected under Topic 1b: Novel Plastics: Designing Highly Recyclable or Biodegradable Plastics:

  • University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, CA) – Degradable Biocomposite Thermoplastic Polyurethanes – DOE Funding: $2,088,114
    • Partners include BASF and University of Georgia.
  • The University of Akron (Akron, OH) – Highly Recyclable Thermosets for Lightweight Composites – DOE Funding: $2,049,242
    • Partners include Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Raytheon Technologies Research Center.

The following projects were selected under Topic 2: Novel Methods for Deconstructing and Upcycling Existing Plastics:

  • IBM Almaden Research Center (San Jose, CA) – Upcycling PET via the VolCat process – DOE Funding: $2,495,625
    • Partners include Husky, Miliken, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Niagra, Oklahoma State University, Under Armor, and Unifi.
  • Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, OH) – Hybrid Approach to Repurpose Plastics Using Novel Engineered Processes (HARNESS) – DOE Funding: $1,999,778
    • Partners include Allonia and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Iowa State University (Ames, IA) – Modular Catalytic Reactors for Single-Use Polyolefin Conversion to Lubricating Oils from Upcycled Plastics (LOUPs) – DOE Funding: $2,500,000
    • Partners include Argonne National Laboratory, ChemStation, Chevron Phillips, and Texas A&M.
  • Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH) – Hybrid Chemical-Mechanical Separation & Upcycling of Mixed Plastic Waste – DOE Funding: $2,498,539
    • Partners include Braskem, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Procter & Gamble, Resource Material and Recycling, and Sandia National Laboratory.
  • LanzaTech, Inc. (Skokie, IL) – Upscaling of Non-Recyclable Plastic Waste into CarbonSmart™ Monomers – DOE Funding: $1,890,001
    • Partners include InEnTec, Lululemon, and Waste Management.

The following projects were selected under Topic 3: BOTTLE Consortium Collaborations to Tackle Challenges in Plastic Waste:

  • University of Delaware (Newark, DE) – Circular Economy of Composites enabled by TUFF Technology – DOE Funding: $2,499,983
    • Partners include Altair, Arkema, Axiom, Colorado State University, Composites Automation, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • University of Minnesota: Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN) – BOTTLE – Recyclable and Biodegradable Manufacturing and Processing of Plastics and Polymers based on Renewable Branched Caprolactones – DOE Funding: $2,499,997
    • Partners include BASF, MIT, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, WI) – Designing Recyclable Biomass Biomass-Based Polyesters – DOE Funding: $2,500,000
    • Partners include Amcor, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pyran, Stora Enso, and the University of Oklahoma.

Learn more about DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Plastics Innovation Challenge.

There are 3 projects that really caught our eye, so here’s a deeper dive into those particular ones.

LanzaTech’s CarbonSmart Monomers

We find this project extra interesting because of everything we know about LanzaTech, the amazing Jennifer Holmgren, the technologies, the partnerships around the world, and more, so here are the details on LanzaTech’s project:

LanzaTech is proposing a hybrid technology for upcycling, via feedstock gasification, the non-recyclable fraction of plastic waste to monoethylene glycol (MEG), a monomer used in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), thereby establishing a new waste-to-products value chain.

Over the past decade, global MEG production and consumption have both risen by approximately 50%, driven largely by demand for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resins and polyester fibers. If successful, this project will enable a “one pot” solution for MEG production from waste, non-recyclable plastics, via gas fermentation, saving energy and GHG with advantaged economics. Current MEG production is a multiple step process, with hazardous intermediates; a single-step process offers greener chemistry, improves material and energy efficiency, all while upcycle waste plastics.

This 3-year project, in partnership with leading gasification technology provider InEnTec, and non-recyclable plastic waste sourced from Waste Management and Lululemon Athletica, will also address the intrinsic challenges related to the gasification process and mixed composition of the feedstock, so it will allow the process to upcycle any type of post-recycling plastic wastes and variable waste streams. Furthermore, LanzaTech has already successfully demonstrated 40,000 hours of pilot-scale conversion of unsorted, unrecyclable municipal solid waste (MSW) into ethanol, and completed a 120-day integrated gasification-gas fermentation demonstration with InEnTec.

Using its in-house synthetic biology capability, LanzaTech will optimize the metabolic pathway and engineer an efficient biocatalyst to convert this syngas to MEG at high selectivity.

LanzaTech’s extensive gas treatment and fermentation expertise will be used to maximize productivity of MEG in a continuous process directly from the real-world syngas, validating an economically viable path for plastic wastes from industry and residuals from municipal waste sorting facilities to chemicals.

University of California – San Diego Algae-Derived Biofuels

Algae is always interesting to Digesterati and this is no exception. This project from UCSD includes big names like Algenesis Materials, PepsiCo, BASF, and REEF. The details:

For algae-derived biofuels to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, the algae industry is investing in the production of secondary high-value products and markets, including algae-based polymers. At the University of California San Diego (UCSD), we are developing sustainable and biodegradable algae-based polyurethane materials to meet this demand for increased value from algal biomass production, and address the increasing plastic waste problem.

In collaboration with Algenesis Materials, we have developed algae-derived polyurethanes used to generate products, including surf boards, flip flops, and athletic shoe midsoles, that contain up to 50% bio-based content and meet or exceed commercial performance metrics. Some of these products are already commercially available. Because these bio-based polyester polyurethanes have chemical bonds that occur in nature, the resulting products are biodegradable. We have identified that they degrade at approximately 3 – 4% per month in natural environments, such as residential compost piles.

In order to enable a non-linear plastic economy that can develop around algae-based polyurethane materials, our primary project goal is to develop a >80% bio-based polyurethane product that is biodegradable and has enhanced performance properties. To accomplish this, we propose to:

1) characterize the kinetics and products of biodegradation of our polyurethane foams to demonstrate that they biodegrade to non-toxic components;

2) increase the bio-based content of the polyurethane products by developing new bio-based diisocyanates, a key reactant for producing polyurethane foams, coatings, and adhesives;

3) demonstrate the capacity to scale production these monomers from algal biomass;

4) enhance the performance properties and quantify biodegradability of the polyurethane products through development of novel algal-derived diisocyanate and polyol products; and

5) in collaboration with the Kendall group at UC Davis, assess the environmental and economic potential for these biodegradable and recyclable algaebased polyurethanes.

A significant impact of this project will be the development of commercially-relevant technologies and characterization methodologies to enable the economically viable production of nearly 100% bio-based polyurethanes that are biodegradable. The ability to degrade these foams and not produce toxic byproducts means that they will not accumulate in the environment like the vast majority of petroleum-based plastics.

Key project partners include UCSD, UC Davis, and Algenesis Materials. These efforts will also be supported by cost share partners, Algenesis Materials, PepsiCo, BASF, and REEF, each of whom have direct stakes in the outcomes of this project. Algenesis Materials seeks to commercialize these polyurethane products, while BASF, REEF, and PepsiCo are potential consumers of these polyurethanes and polyurethane precursor materials for the production of industrial chemicals, leisure wear, and food packaging, respectively.

University of Wisconsin’s Biomass-based Polyesters

This one is interesting because of the biomass aspect as well as big names like Stora Enso, Amcor and Pyran being involved. The overall goal of this project is to design and test new biomass-based polyesters that have comparable thermal or mechanical properties to current polyolefin packaging film polymers and also are chemically recyclable and biodegradable.

The expected outcomes from this work are:

  • A new class of chemically recyclable and biodegradable biomass-derived polyesters that have mechanical and thermal properties similar to low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Demonstration of new polyesters in three commercial applications • The relationship between the structure of the polyesters and their properties
  • Material and energy balances for chemical recycling of the biomass polyesters • Continuous production of biomass-derived monomers in laboratory scale reactors
  • TEA and LCA models for polymer synthesis and recycling based on experimental data

The focus of this project is to design new biomass-based polyesters that can replace incumbent polymers for packaging, are biodegradable, chemically recyclable and have improved mechanical/thermal properties. The polymers we produce will be chemically analogous to aliphatic aromatic polyesters, like polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT). PBAT polymers are biodegradable alternatives for LDPE in packaging and other film applications. However, PBAT is not produced from renewable resources and has lower mechanical properties than LDPE requiring thicker films to maintain the required stiffness. The central hypothesis of this proposal is that incorporation of biomass-derived monomers into aliphatic-aromatics polymers will improve the mechanical and thermal properties, retain the chemical recyclability and have biodegradability.

We will prepare and test different polyesters having biomass-based content from 50 to 100 wt%. We will characterize the thermal, mechanical, optical and barrier properties as well as the biodegradability of the resulting polymers. We will work with our industrial partners (Amcor and StoraEnso) to test the resins we produce in three applications: 1) mono-layer films for food packaging; 2) multi-layer films for food packaging; and 3) extrusion coating for liquid packaging. We will study the recyclability of the polymers that we produce using chemical depolymerization. A rigorous process model will be developed using the experimental data in this project and used to estimate the economic costs for monomer synthesis, polymer synthesis and recycling.

This project will create a new class of polyesters that are biodegradable low-cost alternatives to LDPE and LLDPE. This could improve the sustainability of the polymer industry while creating new markets for agricultural waste materials. This project builds on previous DOE BETO programs that have created technologies for production of new monomers.

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