Turning plants and waste into renewable plastics and chemicals

Plastics are still made from petrochemicals that take their toll on the environment. But this could be about to change. Thanks to the EU-funded BioConSepT project, it is now feasible to make plastics from renewable resources such as wood and straw. Industry could soon be making plastic bags and bottles using chemicals derived from agricultural waste.

Chemicals are present in virtually all modern day-to-day plastics. Unfortunately, most of them are produced from non-renewable oil and natural gas and leave Europe relying on other regions. Of even greater concern is the impact on Europe’s carbon footprint of using oil and gas to produce petrochemicals — and ultimately its contribution to global warming.

But what if we could make plastics from plant matter? And what if industry could use agricultural and industrial waste to do this?

This would address the issue of waste disposal and re-use that challenges local governments. At the same time, it could move society a few steps closer to achieving sustainability of supply. “Everyone, particularly the agricultural, chemical, food and energy sectors, would benefit from transitioning from a fossil-based to a bio-based economy,” explains BioConSepT scientific coordinator Carol Roa Engel from TNO.

The EU’s ultimate goal of creating a bioeconomy was the driving force behind the BioConSepT project, and it has certainly contributed, bringing value to waste — specifically agricultural residue, such as wood, straw, corn and leaves.

The project treated cellulose as well as oil and fat residues using (bio)conversion processes to produce intermediate compounds that can be used to produce bio-based plastics and other added value chemicals.

Plant-based chemicals for better plastics

From lignocellulose materials, BioConSepT researchers produced three main chemicals: itaconic acid, succinic acid and furandicarboxilic acid (FDCA). They focused on developing FDCA as it is most in demand from industry. FDCA has significant potential because it generates polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which replaces the petrochemical-based polymer — polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — used for the manufacture of plastic bottles.

Not only is PEF renewable, but it also has better properties than PET. For example, fizzy drinks in a bottle made from PEF will stay fizzy for longer than in a bottle made from PET. More able to withstand higher temperatures, these plant-based bottles are also harder; they last longer and can be reused many more times than the plastic bottles used today.

Beverage companies can now produce a better product in sustainably sourced bottles. The new plastic has cost implications too. And the improved potential for reuse could also help to raise profits or reduce the cost of the end product for consumers. It’s therefore no surprise that one of the world’s largest beverage companies is already planning to start producing and using plant-based bottles.

The BioConSepT project also researched the processing of residual vegetable oils and fats to create plant-based plastics to manufacture eco-bags. The oils and fats are sourced from non-edible plant leftovers and industrial residues and are used to produce epoxides, amines and long chain dicarboxylic acids. Epoxides are of significant interest to industry scientists because they are important for the manufacture of items such as eco-plastic bags.

“Successfully taking the concepts from the lab and implementing them at a pilot plant was a major project milestone,” highlights Engel. The consortium designed a concept to process these chemicals and tested that concept at a pilot scale at the Fraunhofer facilities in Leuna, Germany, and VTT in Finland. Here, the BioConSepT team produced roughly 50 kg of FDCA and 100 litres of epoxides. The next step is to implement and scale up the pilot-plant processes to produce plant-based chemicals and plastics at an industry level.

What research institutes and industry achieved together in four years during the BioConSepT project would have likely taken industry much longer on its own. The close cooperation was “fundamental to the success of the project”, Engel points out.

Getting ready for industrial-scale production

Researchers concluded that the production of FDCA and epoxides is both technically feasible and has significant economic potential. But the research also highlighted areas for fine-tuning — for example, the process of converting fats to chemicals and the purification process.

“And like with all innovations, the process development and pursuit of improved cost-efficiency are ongoing. Consortium members are continuing this pursuit in a follow-up project, BioQED, during which the itaconic acid production process will be scaled up to enable industrial adaptation,” explains the scientific coordinator.

To promote implementation at an industry level, the BioConSepT project ran a two-day on-site training course about product recovery and different separation technologies for about 20 industry scientists. “The course was such a success that [project coordinator] TNO plans to run it again,” Engel reports.

“We also wanted to ensure that learning about bioconversion is fun,” says Engel. That’s why the consortium launched a virtual multiplayer game — the BioEconomy Serious Game. Similar to SimCity, players can use it to build industry with chemicals and processes. Players can take on one of four personas to rule the industry, write laws or push the transition from a fossil fuel to a bio-based economy.

Despite being educational and entertaining, the game has an even more serious purpose — enabling interaction and discussion between the different stakeholders involved in the transition towards a bioeconomy. Through the BioConSepT research, collaboration and innovation, Europe’s goal of creating a bioeconomy is now even more of an achievable target than ever before.

Project details

Project acronym: BioConSepT
Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator), Finland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Israel, Austria, Slovakia, Czechia, UK, Switzerland
Project N°: 289194
Total costs: € 12 984 576
EU contribution: € 8 888 371
Duration: January 2012 - December 2015

Website: http://www.bioconsept.eu/