Although, bio-based materials developers generally actually try to reach similar performance to those of long term established petrochemicals counterparts, there are also a few emerging bio-based materials that actually outperform their predecessors and can create new value propositions. To harvest their full potential, the BBI-JU PPP has already set several calls to action for such future generation solutions. There are molecules like levulinic acid, muconic acid and hydroxymethylfurfuraldehyde, which so far had no fossil-based affordable production route and therefore no direct applications in the market. While their bio-based alternatives are compatible with much more eco-technically feasible synthesis processes, when scaled up, the new resulting bio-based building blocks are promised to a very bright future. As those can be used in a number of other chemicals and materials, they will help bringing renewability and sustainability in many markets down the bioeconomy value chain.
Let’s take a look at their biopolymer applications. There are several 100% bio-based polyesters like PLA or PHAs which have found their ways to market but do not meet all the requirements of the broad packaging applications in terms of costs or properties. A lot of large brand owners, such as Coca Cola and Danone, are investing in research towards the new bio-based building blocks for PET and alike, and started commercializing partly bio-based PET (<30% bio-content, often limited to bio-MEG).
A potential game changer is PEF (polyethylene furanoate): PEF actually has better intrinsic properties than PET especially in terms of thermomechanical properties and gas barrier (e.g. PEF is 6 times less permeable to oxygen than PET and 3 times to carbon dioxide), a key requirement for packaging. As such bio-based PEF is expected to become the new feedstock for drink bottles while the production will be ramping up in Europe. One of the key factors, is that, despite different final properties, PEF is a drop-in solution for PET bottle manufacturers in terms of processability avoiding investments in new machinery.
PEF is produced from FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid), a derivative from the previously mentioned platform bio-based chemical with no fossil counterpart, HMF. This is only one of the many future examples that will be found for the use of the new bio-based building blocks in thermoplastics and thermosetting resins, derived adhesives, coatings, additives for a pharma and cosmetic sectors among many others.
This, together with other ongoing innovations in the bio-packaging field, will contribute to the circular bio-economy targets set in the New Plastic Economy initiative by Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation & its affiliates aiming for 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025