At least, it is if you happen to be looking for a biobased material at the top of the polymer pyramid. At the Biobased Materials conference last week in Cologne, this was one of the salient points made by Stefaan de Wildeman from the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials, a research institute striving for non-conventional biobased innovation. It's a mystery to him why so many producers are currently aiming at biobased building blocks for the low-margin, high-volume world of commodities. The top of the pyramid is empty and, if he is to be believed, it is likely to stay that way if we don't change the way we think.
De Wildeman, who currently also works as senior scientist biobased building blocks at DSM has a background in route-scouting and (bio-)organic synthesis. At DSM, his challenge is to build a pipeline with new and exclusive building blocks derived from renewable resources. At the AMI for Biobased Materials, where he engages in research projects in this area, the main aim is to challenge the status quo. As he says: "Why are we still aiming at the chemical design of polymers in the twentieth century?"
De Wildeman is a man with a mission. Too often, he sees biobased building blocks that are readily available in nature being engineered to fit certain applications for which they are not inherently suited. Or, via a series of complicated steps, to replace robust fossil-based compounds. De Wildeman is seeking a better balance between synthesis, i.e. accessibility, and application (functionality). He envisions a growing and greening of today's range of plastic materials that goes beyond "drop-ins," but that offers a chance for "game-changing new biobased building blocks to enter and rebalance the scene."
"Where is the logic," he asked during his thought-provoking presentation, "of sticking to our current set of building blocks, most of which were developed during the fossil era, while completely switching our resources from fossil to renewable? After all, are the blocks that contribute to ultimate sustainability, per definition those that arose from a non-sustainable era?"
They are good questions, and de Wildeman has his own ideas about the answers. As he pointed out, fossil-based resources offer only two dominant atoms to play with: carbon and hydrogen. Everything else needs to be added later. Nature, in the form of biomass offers both of these, plus two more: oxygen and nitrogen. Hence it follows that the possibilities for creating new biobased building blocks have to be much greater than those that have hitherto been studied.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, his goal is to come up with newly designed biobased building blocks derived from renewable sources via a few (bio)chemical steps, "route-scouting,"that provide equivalent or better performance in materials. The aim is to develop responsive, living (hybrid) materials. "We need materials that match purpose and performance. Drop-ins are a safe business case," he declared. "Nature functionalizes applications. So should we." And in that process, decentralization is key.
"Petroleum-derived materials are the epitome of centralization. We're talking about growing your own."
"We need a new innovation cycle," de Wildeman continued. "Away from the polyolefins, from all the polyamides, the polyesters, the polyvinyls and what have you."
Less effort should go toward optimizing existing routes developed using fossil-based building blocks, and a far greater focus should be on the development of new building blocks that, for example, can unite certain functionalities that are currently incompatible in materials. Biocatalysis is one of the enablers toward accessing such innovative biobased building blocks.
His team, which has developed a concerted research and development chain (consisting of biosynthesis, polymerization and material application development) to create a new value chain, is already seeing results. "We've already successfully identified hot spots for such new biobased building blocks that open up new horizons for new biobased materials to contribute to added functionality in their applications," said de Wildeman.
It's an approach that he styles as "Green meets Performance." And it is one in which he fervently believes.
The future will show whether his faith is justified. He, at least, has no doubt at all. "This is the way forward," he said. "I'm going to give it my all."