Plastic from biomass demonstrated successfully

04 Apr 2016

Around thirty partners worked on new processes for making plastic from biomass in the European project BioConSepT. Contrary to existing processes, this technology is based on oils, fats, wood and straw that are not fit for consumption. At the end of 2015, TNO demonstrated this is possible on a large scale in conjunction with AVA Biochem, Evonik, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Novamont, and VTT.
PEF, a polymer, has the potential to replace PET

“BioConSepT was a four-year project,” says TNO's Nadine Wennersbusch. “As a consortium, we focused all our attention on how we can convert second-generation biobased raw materials into building materials, such as plastics, coatings and resins, in an effective and economically feasible way. The consortium included partners from the entire production chain: from biorefinery suppliers to producers that apply plastics. TNO coordinated the work and developed treatment steps for the produced molecules.”

PET bottles

At the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes in Leuna (Germany), the six consortium partners organized a large-scale demonstration of how furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is produced. By doing so, they proved that it is actually possible to make the transition from a laboratory environment to an industrial production process. TNO researcher Carol Roa Engel explains, “FDCA is a molecule that is used as a building block for polymers. Its main application is polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a polymer with the potential to replace polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which we are familiar with from PET bottles. FDCA can be made from biomass. But there is a second important advantage: the material keeps carbon dioxide longer in the bottle, so soft drinks have a longer shelf life.”

Conversion of HMF into FDCA

Roa Engel elaborates, “During the research phase we used fructose, which first had to be converted into hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and then into FDCA. We succeeded in developing a process for the production of FDCA with a purity of 98-99%. The fructose used in this case was based on first-generation biobased raw materials, but can also be obtained from second-generation ones. We also used impure process water from the HMF-to-FDCA conversion. The process is thus readily comparable with a 'real' second-generation process.”

TNO as coordinator

“The various process steps took place at different locations and in different time zones, depending on the expertise of the partners involved,” continues Engel. “It was important to organize the experiments and exchange the results in this way, so one partner could always go through the other partner”s results.” Wennersbusch adds, “TNO's added value lay mainly in the fact that we could switch to all those levels. For example, our initial contribution to this project was research into fermentation; we then developed process technology for purification and were also involved in scaling-up. It is only if you have expertise on all those levels that you can understand what problems your partners may encounter. And then you can exert pressure to ensure that you can scale-up at the end of the project.”

Economically feasible

At the start of the project, FDCA cost €10 a kilogram. It now costs €3 a kilogram. Wennersbusch confirms, “In the four years of the project, we managed to reduce costs by almost 70%. That is encouraging. AVA Biochem is now continuing with the work to scale-up the technology to commercial level.”

Serious Game

The extraction of resources from biomass is more than simply a technical issue. Political, economic, and logistical concerns also play a part. That is why the partners in BioConSepT also worked with a serious game. Wennersbusch explains, “We developed the serious game BioEconomy together with Tygron. Participants sat in front of laptops, with access to the same virtual world. They initially communicated using the screen. But we quickly saw them stand up to negotiate live. We are going to continue that trend by developing the serious game further into a region-specific game with real geographical and economical information.”


At TNO, we are keen to contact other organizations that wish to work with the new process technology for FDCA, or with organizations that wish to develop comparable processes with TNO. If you are interested, please contact Nadine Wennersbusch.

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