DuPont, ADM open “groundbreaking” biobased material pilot facility

Dupont-ADMMore biobased polymer materials are on the way to development as DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) open the “world’s first" biobased furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) pilot production facility in Decatur, IL. The plant is the result of a longstanding collaboration that will help bring a greater variety of sustainably sourced biomaterials into the lives of consumers, said the announcement.

ADM, already known for “transforming crops into products,” such as biobased/renewable chemicals and vegetable-based oils for water repellants and wood preservation that resist mold, decay and termites, and plastics with biobased content, has now teamed up with DuPont to expand its efforts. 

The joint press release from the two companies noted that “nearly one-tenth of the world’s oil is used to make the plastic products we use every day,” adding that “fossil-fuel-based plastics are virtually impossible to avoid because of a lack of commercially available alternatives—a significant gap in the marketplace that DuPont and ADM’s new biobased FDME will help address.”

That statement makes it sound like a lot of fossil-fuel-based oil is being used for plastics, but information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) addresses this in its FAQ section: “Although crude oil is a source of raw material (feedstock) for making plastics, it is not the major source of feedstock for plastics production in the United States. Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining. 

“Petrochemical feedstock naptha and other oils refined from crude oil are used as feedstock for petrochemical crackers that produce the basic building blocks for making plastics.” The EIA noted that it is unable to determine the specific amounts or origin of the feedstocks that are actually used to manufacture plastics in the U.S. EIA data can only identify those oil-derived feedstocks specifically designated as petrochemical feedstock by petroleum refineries in EIA’s refining surveys, which break out into naptha for petrochemical feedstock use and other oils for petrochemical feedstock use. However, the petrochemical industry also consumes large quantities of hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL), which may be produced by petroleum refineries or natural gas processing plants. 

In 2016, said the EIA, most of the HGL produced in the U.S. (85%) were byproducts of natural gas processing; the remaining 15% were from crude oil refineries. The HGL produced by U.S. petroleum refineries contain both alkanes, which can be used as feedstock for petrochemical crackers, and olefins, primarily propylene. Other minor quantities of ethylene and butylenes, also refinery olefins, are also used as direct inputs into plastics manufacturing. 

DuPont and ADM said in their information that FDME is a molecule derived from fructose that can be used to create a variety of biobased chemicals and materials, including plastics. The companies make the claim that these are “ultimately more cost effective and sustainable than their fossil fuel–based counterparts.”

However, when PlasticsToday requested further information such as from what sources the fructose will be derived and in what ways the supply chain will be more cost effective and sustainable (if derived from agricultural sources) than fossil fuel-based plastics, we received no response.

“We’re confident FDME is both the more sustainable option and the better-for-business option,” said Michael Saltzberg, PhD, Global Business Director for Biomaterials at DuPont Industrial Biosciences. “This molecule, and its numerous applications, will be high-performing, cost-effective and better for the environment. ADM’s expertise in agricultural value chains and the chemistry of carbohydrates makes them the best possible business partner on this initiative. Our goal is to bring this game-changing technology to commercial scale as quickly as possible.”

I also asked them in what ways fructose molecules derived from agricultural products are better for the environment, given the processes typically used to turn crops into by-products used to produce biobased plastics, such as planting, harvesting and processing the agricultural products. Again no response was forthcoming.

ADM Chief Technology Officer Todd Werpy commented in the release the usual rhetoric that “companies and consumers are concerned about their environmental footprint, but their bottom line will always be a key priority. This new, innovative product will help customers replace plastics with materials that are more environmentally friendly, better performing and cost efficient.”

One of the first FDME-based polymers under development by DuPont is polytrimethylene furandicarboxyate (PTF), a novel polyester also made from DuPont’s proprietary Bio-PDO (1.3-propanediol). PTF is a 100% renewable polymer that, in bottling applications, can be used to create plastic bottles that are lighter in weight, more sustainable and better performing, said the release. Checking out the manufacturing process of Bio-PDO, I found they use glucose—a biobased monomer. 1,3-Propanediol (PDO) has three carbons (nature is filled with three-carbon and six-carbon forms, said the DuPont website, which supports the science that we live in a carbon-based world).

Working with polymer experts, a team of DuPont scientists and engineers discussed the possibilities of the biological production of PDO, which led to more than a decade of research. “Next, DuPont scientists partnered with Genencor scientists to develop the organism that would use the glucose (sugar) from corn starch to produce PDO,” said DuPont’s web site. “They also developed a proprietary fermentation process, followed by meticulous cleaning and distillation, to end up with a pure form of Bio-PDO.

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