For the Biobased Performance Materials (BPM) symposium on June 15 in Wageningen, the Netherlands, speakers from companies and institutes participating in the BPM consortium presented research results, applications and products illustrating the state of the art in biobased materials today. The day was chaired by Jan Noordegraaf, director of Synbra Technology, a Dutch company and one of Europe's leading processors of expandable polystyrene (EPS) packaging and insulation. The company won its spurs in the field of biobased materials with the development of PLA foam.
The morning program focused on the developments in the markets and applications for biobased materials, and on the developments in processing biobased materials. Multiple speakers noted that major gains have been made in this area just in the past five years: after years of being regarded as a second rate, albeit politically correct choice, biomaterials are now coming into their own. Increasingly, applications that take advantage of the intrinsic properties of the biomaterial are being developed - in certain areas.
There remains significant room for improvement, however. One of the speakers, Martin Patel from Utrecht University, has studied the potential for substitution of petroleum-based materials for biobased materials, looking at ways to compare the two groups in a fair way via LCAs and other assessments. He made the point that "the total maximum technical substitution potential of bio-based polymers replacing their petrochemical counterparts is estimated at 270 Mt, or 90% of the total polymers (including fibers) that were consumed in 2007 worldwide. This shows that, from a technical point of view, there are very large opportunities for the replacement of petrochemical by bio-based plastics."
The price is still not right
The operative word in this statement, however, is the word technical. From an economical perspective, opportunities have been slow to open up is some areas. According to Eddy Hilbrink, for example, of plastics processor Apeldoorn Flexible Packaging, customer demand for biobased thin film for packaging applications is still low. The company has been developing and producing starch-based and PLA film for almost ten years but has yet to see it become a commercial success. The higher price of the new products is not offset by a better performance. What is needed, and what his company is still seeking, is an application tailored to the film's very specific properties rather than merely substituting it in existing applications.
The afternoon session at the event consisted of six presentations that mainly examined developments in the area of new biobased products and the raw materials and building blocks used to produce these. These included a presentation, delivered by Hans Ridderikhoff of Croda Industrial Specialities, a company specialized in the production of oleo chemicals, on this company's new (fatty-acid based) dimer diamine technology for coating applications. Using the built-in advantages of its low viscosity, low glass temperature and hydrophobic properties, dimer diamine can be incorporated into paint, yielding high-impact coating systems on a 100% bio basis. Explained Ridderikhoff, "We see possibilities in the future for developing this system into products that perform as well as, or that even outperform, conventional materials."
The presentation of Jacco van Haveren, program manager for biobased chemicals at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, offered an overview of a number of projects that are currently ongoing within this group. According to Van Haveren, specifying naturally occurring biopolymers such as starch is not the best way for the industry to develop. "Developing biobased monomers for controlled polymerization into biobased polymers will be the dominant development direction for replacing petrochemical based materials," he opined.
The biggest difference, in his view, was that "with fossil feedstocks the technology aimed to selectively introduce functionality - the technology with chemicals based on biomass - is focused on selectively removing functionality." One of this group's most promising developments looks to be that of isosorbide plasticizers. "They work. And with the concerns about and the (partial) ban on phthalates, this presents an opportunity," said Van Haveren.
The other presentations included one from Cargill, which explored the factors relating to supply and demand and the impact on the pricing of biobased feedstocks, and another from Purac, in which Peter Jansen discussed the development in the company's PLA monomer production processes.
The afternoon closed with a presentation from Francesco Picchioni, a polymer chemistry researcher at Groningen University. For Picchioni, "Going green might not be enough." 'Green' products should also be recyclable or reusable, he argued, meaning these must be genuine thermoplastics. This is only possible if the polymerization reaction is thermally reversible. His lab has been working on a wholly recyclable polyketone that in the future may be able to replace thermoset epoxy, and hopes to find a way to apply this technology, in which the cross-linking process is reversed, to the materials in the BPM program. He strongly emphasized, however, that in developing biobased products a number of aspects were important. "All products must have added value to be economically feasible, as the competition is incredibly strong. Company input is essential. In addition, it is vital to learn to cope with variability, as this in inherent in biomaterials. And, very important, this is our chance not to make the same error again, but to do proper product and process design. This time, design the materials for recyclability!"
Symposium exceeds expectations
"We organized the symposium to give people a chance to see what the BPM-program has achieved," said Christiaan Bolck, director of the BPM program. 'We hoped that we'd attract a hundred attendees, but we did better than that: we had well over 150 registrations. We were especially happy to find that the industry was extremely well represented. It shows just how 'hot' this topic is."
The focus of the BPM program is on durable applications, and the ambition level is high. "So much is already possible, both economically and technically. The BPM program has drawn participants from various different sectors and aims to grow a viable biobased value chain extending from raw material producer to end user," added Bolck. Ultimately, however, what counts is the final product. The unique way in which knowledge institutes and the industry collaborate within this program is an indication of the program's commitment to tangible and usable results in the form of performance materials that are based as much as possible on renewable resources.
(Karen Laird attended the BMP symposium for PlasticsToday)