Published On: Wed, Dec 19th, 2012

Plastics from unconventional sources

 Plastics from unconventional sources

Plastics from unconventional sources

The idea of making monomers and polymers from sustainable sources is rapidly becoming reality with many companies targeting R&D funds and investment in this field. The drivers are to save the planet, reduce carbon footprint and to develop a long-term viable business. The market for greener materials will be affected by the discovery and exploitation of shale gas, which supplies a cheap source of ethylene precursors, however higher carbons are not found in this resource and there is a shortage arising, which is a further factor pushing the search for new sources of monomers.

AMI provides an international forum to debate the latest market developments and technology trends at Green Polymer Chemistry 2013, which takes place from 19th to 21st March 2013 at the Maritim Hotel, Cologne, Germany. Polymers are vital to the global economy from cable insulation, water pipes and medical devices to packaging and there has to be a long-term solution to sourcing that won’t run out with fossil fuels. The additional benefits will come from finding feedstocks that are waste by-products from another arena that need disposal, like waste to syngas projects.

Work is continuing on enzyme and conventional catalysis of bio-based feedstocks to produce conventional plastics. The industry is used to working with petrochemical sources, so it will need to adapt to working with agriculture where there are different issues in the supply chain. Cargill is one of the three top agricultural companies in the world (the ABC of ADM, Bunge and Cargill) and has decades of expertise and specialist consultants to advise industry on building a suitable supply chain.

Poyry Management Consultants has conducted a market study into the future prospects for bio-based materials. Linde Engineering Dresden has built several industrial bio-refineries to supply the polymer industry. Thailand is rich in plant material, for example it has excess sugar cane, and PTT Global Chemical is expanding from its conventional petrochemical feedstock to looking at the potential for renewable chemistry.

Wood can be a very sustainable source of materials and SCA Hygiene products, which manufactures disposables such as diapers, is involved in research to make its polymer materials using this resource. In the Netherlands TNO is leading the BioConSept project to use second generation biomass in plastics, including a pilot scale plant at Fraunhofer IGB for lignocelluloses conversion to useful chemicals. Biomethodes in France is also working in this area.

There are now well-established supplies of polymers such as polyamides and polyethylene from renewable sources. One of the leading agricultural universities in this field is Wageningen UR in the Netherlands, where current research projects include the discovery of new sources of polyamide monomers. Evonik is one of the key suppliers of bio-based polyamide. The current cost of bio-sourced materials is higher than from petrochemical feedstock, so companies like Taghleef Industries which are manufacturing films from biobased polyethylene have looked at the market and the value to brand owners of the sustainability of materials. Another option for the specialty film market is a new bio-based tie-layer from Yparex.

In Japan Toray has made a big breakthrough in manufacturing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from renewable sources. The DSM company is already using bio-sources for several of its polymers and one of the latest developments is in unsaturated polyester resin for composites. Acrylics have been later in appearing in this arena, but Arkema Altuglas has just announced a breakthrough in this field. There is an EU project on making thermoplastic elastomers with SKZ as one of the project leaders.

There are several polymers where green feedstocks are regularly used and one of those is polyurethane where the polyol can be sourced from a variety of plants. This has been reviewed by Angela Austin editor of the PU Magazine. The isocyanate component of PU is much harder to synthesize from nature. Bayer Material Science has established methods to produce polyurethane using CO2 as the base material.

One big area of interest is the use of CO2 from power stations as a feedstock and this has been achieved by several major chemical companies looking at both general hydrocarbons and polymers. The latest development is commercial ventures which are using excess renewable energy to convert the CO2 to usable hydrocarbons and by doing so providing a form of energy storage.

CO2 is of great interest as a feedstock for the polymer industry as using it gives a negative carbon footprint and removes a key factor from the global warming equation, plus there are abundant sources. In Iceland Carbon Recycling International is producing potential feedstock for plastics in this way. Solvay is also active in this market, generating hydrocarbons and thus “storing energy”. Siemens is leading the field in utilising sustainable plastics from CO2 waste.  The AMI conference on Green Polymer Chemistry 2013 is a forum for environmental debate on the future technology and economics of the polymer industry.