Twenty years to launch a new polymer?
As well-known figure in the bioplastics world, PHA expert Jan Ravenstijn, is fond of saying: ‘it takes twenty years to bring a new polymer successfully to the market’. While it is an observation that Avantium had hoped to prove wrong, in light of the fact that the project started in 2006, the pilot plant opened in Geleen in 2011 and it will not be until 2023 that the flagship comes on stream, the company is cutting it fine, to say the least. Yet, bringing a new polymer to market is a huge challenge. Not only does the chemistry and chemical process to produce the polymer need to be developed, so do the applications and the market. “It takes a tremendous amount of time, capital, patience and persistence, to do it. I really look forward to seeing these PEF products in my supermarket, because that is ultimately going to be the reward for these 20 years of investment from the company, from our shareholders and in particular from the people who have worked on this project,” van Aken said.
These long lead times are difficult from a financing perspective and Avantium, he added, is extremely fortunate in having come so far. The €30m funding received from the regional consortium in Delfzijl, in addition to the €25m PEFerence Horizon 2020 subsidy from the EU’s Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking, provide an important part of the funding needed for the new flagship plant. The next stage will be to attract the strategic equity part of the funding.
“We are already in discussion with a group of industrial players playing a role in the value chain with an interest in the industrialisation and commercialisation of FDCA and PEF,” van Aken explained. “We feel very confident that we can attract the strategic equity funding, and then the remaining part will be in the form of loans - which always comes last: loan providers want to see the equity and all the other subsidies in before they are willing to commit to providing the loans.” In his view, that is less of a concern: the big milestone for Avantium this year will be attracting the strategic equity providers. “Once this is in place I think we all feel very confident that we will find the €150m investment for building this plant,” he added.
“I’m very pleased we’ve been able to do this. I think, in particular, that’s been because PEF is an exceptional product. That’s why we are successful at this: if we would not have had these unique characteristics of PEF, probably we would not be having this discussion.”
PEF is a ‘compelling case’
Chemically speaking, PEF is a polyester, albeit a biobased one, and in that sense, part of the same family as PET. PEF can also be polymerized on the same assets as PET, which is why Avantium will not be installing any polymerisation capacity at Delfzijl. According to van Aken, there is currently an overcapacity for making PET, and it makes far more sense to use existing assets, rather than building new capacity. The new flagship plant will be an FDCA plant only, with polymerization taking place elsewhere in the world. FDCA is a very stable product, he added. It is a powder that is easily shipped. In the future, the aim is to have the polymerisation plant close to where the FDCA is being produced, but this will only become relevant when producing FDCA on an industrial scale.
“The polyester producers are extremely pleased that we use part of their capacity to make PEF so this is currently not the bottleneck for bringing this product to the market,” he noted. The true limiting factor here is the actual production of FDCA.
“Ultimately the investments will have to be made in the chemical industry – changing over from a process that is now based on petroleum to make PET or products like PET to using agricultural feedstocks: fructose from corn or from wheat, that we turn into FDCA. But that is new capacity that will have to be installed to produce FDCA. We try to use- as far as possible – existing assets, but the investments will have to be made on the upstream side of the value chain, so really, in the monomer production,” van Aken.
Yet PEF is more that just a biopolyester that can be produced on PET assets. In the first place, both the carbon and the energy footprint to produce PEF are expected to show improvements of well over 50% compared to PET. Secondly, PEF itself has superior gas barrier properties over PET, allowing PEF bottles to be made that are lighter, thinner thus reducing weight and offering a longer shelf life, thus reducing waste.
Lighter, thinner bottles require less energy in the bottle-blowing process, plus that at the end of life, the recycling process requires less energy. Although PEF is a material, specifically designed for recycling, in case PEF ends up in the environment – as plastic and plastic packaging often does – the initial data appears to indicate that PEF will be degraded in nature by bacteria and by fungi much faster than PET –probably years versus hundreds of years.
“But let me be very clear about this: PEF is as good as PET when it comes to recycling,” emphasised van Aken. “What I am trying to say is that, when looking at the entire chain of production, raw materials, energy use, but even recycling, PEF is a material that scores significantly better than PET on all the environmental aspects that we are looking at. And this makes it such a compelling case. If we didn’t have these properties and these characteristics and it would just be a green PET, we probably wouldn’t have come so far. Brand owners, retailers are interested – and that is because, of course, they see these environmental benefits and these performance benefits, which really set it apart from other polymers people have tried to commercialise.”
Biobased and recyclable
Interestingly, the topic of recycling is not one commonly discussed in connection with biobased plastics. For PEF, however, it will be the end-of-life option of choice from the very beginning.
“We have one benefit here,” said van Aken. “When we bring this to the market we have already thought about recycling, while if you look at PET or any other polymer launched 30 years ago, it was decades before the question came up of how to recycle it. So in that sense, we have the benefit of doing all this testing before we launch the product instead of having to come up with recycling solutions while the product is already on the market.”
Over the years, therefore, Avantium has tested PEF bottles and PEF films in different kinds of sorting facilities to make sure that the sorting equipment (through infrared detection) of these facilities can recognise PEF and differentiate PEF from, for example PET or other polymers. Avantium has also used recycled PEF bottles to make new bottles, and even films and fibres. ‘It is all very similar to the mechanical recycling technologies being used for PET – they can also be applied to PEF. In that sense, recyclers like the product,” van Aken commented.
Obviously, introducing 5 kilotonnnes into the market is not a sufficient volume for recyclers to establish a PEF to PEF stream. However, according to Avantium, up to 5% PEF can be mixed into the PET stream without problem. “In fact,”, says van Aken: “It doesn’t affect the colour or the haze, so when recyclers process PEF, it will basically just be co-mingled with the PET recycle stream and as such recycled. Now this is not a solution for the long term; it is very clearly a solution only for the short term or intermediate term”.
Once PEF gets bigger in volume, dedicated PEF recycling becomes an attractive business opportunity. It is technically proven that PEF can be separated from PET”.
From commercial to industrial scale
Avantium’s first FDCA flagship plant at Delfzijl will have a nameplate capacity of 5 kilotonnes per year, referred to by the company as ‘commercial scale’. Does the company have plans to expand to industrial scale at this same location? Not at present, according to van Aken. The main goal of this flagship plant, he said, is to get PEF to market. Practically speaking, this is the one sure way to gain a better understanding of how consumers will respond to the new material in different parts of the world; how brand owners will respond and how quickly they will adapt to using PEF to make bottles or to use PEF films in food packaging and in their electronic products.
The nature of the new material and its application possibilities make it reasonable to assume that at some point in the future, PEF will be produced at similar scale to PET, which means that the production of FDCA will have to be scaled up very significantly – globally.
At this point, however, Delfzijl is the perfect choice offering multiple advantages, van Aken observed: “It's a very significant chemical site; of course there is no oil refinery, so most of the products made there are made on the basis of salt, but it has a great harbour and therefore a great sea connection. With agricultural feedstocks, a seaport is an advantage.
The site also provides the utilities and infrastructure that a chemical company needs, such as steam, different industrial gases, etcetera, which also make it attractive.” In addition, to compensate for the fact that the Netherlands is actually shutting down its natural gas extraction activities in the area, the Dutch government has put significant financial support packages in place to enable the local governments to attract new economic activities. In fact, Avantium already has other assets operating in Delfzijl. Plus that, not unimportantly, in the near future quite a number of people will have to be retrained for jobs in industries other than natural gas, so that finding personnel could pose few problems. “I think this is how it all comes together,” van Aken said.
“Our initial experience in Delfzijl – we have been operating there for two years – is that we have been able to attract really, really experienced and capable people from the gas and conventional chemical industry; in the region significant chemical plants are operational so in that sense, so far so good and we look forward to building on the success we’ve had so far.”
Ahead of the game
The timing is excellent. With consumers increasingly demanding renewably-sourced products or products that can be recycled in a sustainable manner, PEF bottles fit the bill in every way. Moreover, said van Aken, young consumers in particular are so critical, so vocal about this that there is immense pressure on brand owners to make transitions. Over time, however, the focus has shifted.
When Avantium started its PEF project, it was all about renewable feedstocks, while today, this has been overtaken by a tremendous amount of attention for plastic waste and demand for circular solutions. “Plastics waste is putting significant pressure on our environment and our natural systems. It’s good we are forced to think about how we can make sure how our materials can be reused or recycled if we cannot reuse them,” said van Aken.
“This makes us very well positioned and, in that sense, l really am looking forward to the new legislation now being implemented across the globe: it all plays in favour of more sustainable solutions such as ours.”
Looking ahead to the inevitable moment that other FDCA producers enter the market, Avantium is not worried. The company has made very significant investments – well over €100m so far – to keep its technological lead. Moreover, as van Aken is well aware, customers do not want to be dependent on a single supplier and is under no illusion that the company can keep this space to itself. “It is going to be healthy when other companies reach the same point. But of course I hope that we are going to have economic and quality benefits over them so that we can capture the value we have created,” he added. Ultimately, however, what drives him, and most of the other people working at the company is the opportunity to make an impact.
As he concluded: “We all feel very driven by this desire to make an impact on this transition in the chemical industry, and that’s what’s keeping us going - and we are now getting to the point where it is becoming really interesting.”