Avantium continues work on PEF bioplastic

By Erin Voegele | May 24, 2011

Amsterdam-based Avantium is developing solutions to produce biobased plastics using existing infrastructure. The catalyst-development company spun off from Shell in 2000, and began transitioning into biobased material development in 2005. According to Avantium Chief Technology Officer Frank Roerink, the company now focuses about 50 percent of its business efforts on the biobased industry.

Avantium is currently working to develop a biobased plastic material called poly-ethylene-furanoate (PEF), which is an analog for traditional fossil-based polyethylene-terephthalate (PET) material.

The 100 percent biobased and recyclable material is designed to be produced using existing infrastructure. “You have to have a production process that can compete with today’s supply chain,” Roerink said. “So, how do you compete with today’s supply chain? By having the same process as today’s supply chain. Today’s supply chain for producing chemical building blocks and fuels is chemical catalysis.” Essentially, Roerink said his company has figured out how to convert biomass feedstock into plastic using existing industrial assets. Most importantly, he said, the technology features superior economics.

“We’ve always worked [under] three simple concepts,” he said. “Our process has to compete on price, it has to compete on performance, and it has to have a better environmental footprint.”

According to Roerink, Avantium’s proprietary chemical catalytic technology is fast and efficient. Due to the fact that it fits with existing production infrastructure, he also noted the scale-up risk is relatively low. Although some work would need to be done to retrofit existing petrochemical assets to produce the company’s PEF, Roerink stresses that the use of existing assets is far more economical than new construction.

However, Avantium does not currently plan to build, own or operate PEF production plants. Rather, the company will license its technology to third parties. “We will not be the company that will produce the product itself. We will have joint collaborations with large chemical companies and with end users that will determine the specification of the material. The large companies in between will produce. We will not be the ones who own large chemical factories.”

Roerink also noted that Avantium’s PEF features similar—or better—properties when compared to fossil-based PET. PEF has great barrier properties, he said. In fact, PEF has barrier properties six times better than PET when it comes to oxygen. The biomass material’s carbon dioxide and water barrier properties are also twice as high as PET.

According to Roerink, the price drivers of the materials also differ. While the price of traditional PET is driven by oil prices and supply and demand mechanisms, he said the primary cost drivers for PEF are carbohydrate cost and economies of scale.

As Avantium moves forward with development plans, work is continuing to further enhance certain characteristics of the biobased plastic, including color, molecular weight and bottle design. A pilot plant is currently under development and is expected to become operational later this year. The plant will focus on further product optimization as well as the development of product applications, Roerink said. Commercial production of Avantium’s biobased PEF could begin, he added, as soon as 2015.