With the current surge of interest in renewably sourced materials, the timing could almost not be better to bring a new PHA production facility on stream. In May of this year, CJ Bio, a division of South Korea- based CJ CheilJedang, did just that. Sustainable Plastics talked with Max Senechal CCO, CJ Bio about PHA, the new plant and CJ Bio’s very considerable ambitions for the future.
CJ Bio’s first PHA plant, located in Pasuruan, Indonesia, has a rated capacity of 5,000 tonnes and is the sole producer in the world of amorphous PHA, a softer, more rubbery version of the PHAs that are currently being produced elsewhere. The product is essentially an evolution from the amorphous material developed by Metabolix back in the 2014, 2015 time frame, according to Max Senechal, who was at that time working at Metabolix. The Korean biotech company acquired the PHA technology from Metabolix in 2016 and has directed considerable resources over the past four to five years at improving and scaling up the technology.
“As one of the biggest biotech companies in the world, CJ is mostly known for its amino acid business, animal feed business lysine methionine and so forth, “ he said. “The technology that's employed to ferment amino acids is actually very similar to the technology used to make PHAs. In other words, from a technology point of view, there are a lot of synergies and similarities.”
At the time CJ was also exploring activities beyond just amino acids, including setting up several internal programmes that involved using biotechnology to produce chemicals. “Moving into PHAs made a lot of sense,” said Senechal. “Significant improvements were made to the microbiology – to the strain engineering as well as to the process to produce at large scale,” he added.
The company’s first product out of the gate is amorphous PHA, the reason being, said Senechal, is because it's a highly differentiated PHA.
“Also, the material is an excellent modifier for other biopolymers and therefore allows us the ability to leverage the positioning of some current bio polymers in the market and get to market quicker that way. But I also want to make it very clear that we have a much broader portfolio of technology then just the amorphous PHA. CJ certainly has the intention to launch other grades of PHAs that will broaden the market exposure in the very near future.”
Bioengineering, a core expertise
PHA is not just one material, but a family of perhaps several hundred different types. As a company seeking to gain a commercial foothold in the PHA space, differentiation is important, said Senechal. He emphasized that, while all PHAs are produced in more or less the same way - “It's all fermentation, it's all intracellular accumulation of the polymer” - the actual differentiation occurs with the ability to engineer microbial strains in order to design PHAs with specific characteristics. CJ Bio has developed a comonomer structure for PHAs: a PHA that is made up of 3HB and 4HB comonomers.
“We have the ability to engineer our strains to target a specific ratio of those comonomers. That, in turn, gives us the possibility to target some very specific range of performance, and then the first grade we came up with was amorphous PHA,” said Senechal.
Amorphous PHA has a very low TG, which means it is very soft at low temperature and it is an excellent modifier for polymers such as PLA, as it can improve toughness, improve tear resistance and the modulus of PLA and of other polymers.
“PBAT is an interesting one, PBS is another one, as are other PHAs: what's very fascinating about biopolymers is that there's not a biopolymer that's a perfect solution for everything. Having the ability to work with multiple products and combine for a specific application is going to be very important.”
“It all goes back to our ability to design strains and microbes that can do that. Bioengineering is a very core skill for us. CJ Bio is one of the largest fermenters in the world, so we benefit from the capability to start from the very small and then build a plant that will produce at very large scale,” he explained.
Asked about the feedstock CJ used, Senechal confirmed that was sucrose from sugar cane in Indonesia. CJ is one of the largest buyers of the carbon feed-source sugar, sucrose or dextrose in the world. The Pasuruan plant was built on an existing amino acid production facility.
“As part of the CJ family, we benefit from the largest buying power of sugar feedstock around the world. That said, we can use a variety of feedstocks; we've demonstrated in the past that we can use different feedstocks whether it be dextrose from corn or cellulosic feedstocks; but right now, because of the scale and because of the strong position that we have in Indonesia, we're using sucrose from sugar cane.”