“The bioeconomy is the biggest chance we have to decarbonise our world and make it a more sustainable place”. Thomas Kläusli, Chief Marketing Officer at AVA Biochem and AVA-CO2, talks to Il Bioeconomista. AVA Biochem is a subsidiary of AVA-CO2 Schweiz AG, which produces the premium platform chemical 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF) from renewable biomass, and delivers to industrial and research customers around the globe. “5-HMF – the Swiss manager say – can be used for many applications, including the bioplastics industry”.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Mister Kläusli, what is the bioeconomy from your point of view?
The bioeconomy is the biggest chance we have to decarbonise our world and make it a more sustainable place. We have to move away from our current ‘cradle to grave’ economy and learn more from nature, where there is no such thing as waste. This will help us make much better use of our resources and develop a truly bio-based, circular economy. By using renewable, biological resources to produce bio-based materials, the bioeconomy will not only build a more sustainable future by replacing petro-based products but also help bring better products to the market. We expect the demand for biomaterials will lead to exceptional growth in the coming years.
If the industry can ensure performance, delivery and quality, the renewable chemicals sector will take bio-based chemicals into the mainstream. The bio-based chemical market alone could be worth $98.5 million by 2020. Since 2012, we have already seen tremendous growth figures for bioplastics, which are set to continue. We expect to see even more developments once important bio-based platform chemicals such as 5-HMF, FDCA or novel polymers like PEF hit the market.
AVA Biochem’s commercial production of bio–based platform chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF) and recent addition of 2,5 furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) to its portfolio has come at the right time. 5-HMF and FDCA can provide an alternative, cost-competitive route to polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which has a lot of potential to replace petro-based plastics such as PET for bottles and food packaging. Non-toxic 5-HMF, made through a hydrothermal treatment of sugars, also shows a very promising potential to replace carcinogenic formaldehyde in the manufacturing of resins. These are just a few examples of fantastic developments currently happening in the bio-based economy.
What are the main industrial applications of 5-HMF?
A platform chemical, 5-HMF is the basis for many downstream chemicals and performance polymers. 5-HMF can be used for many applications, including the bioplastics industry.
For example, when 5-HMF is oxidised, a range of other chemicals can be produced, including FDCA, a basis for the novel polymer PEF. Known as ‘the polymer of the future’, PEF is set to replace polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polybutyleneterephthalate (PBT) in the near future.
Not only PEF is a more sustainable alternative, it also offers superior product characteristics compared to PET, such as higher tensile strength and improved gas permeability barriers. This means less material needs to be used, which reduces production costs. Shelf life is also improved, which reduces food waste. The gas permeability barrier improvements also mean PEF has new applications in markets not currently served by PET-based products.
Named by the US Department of Energy as one of the most important next-generation platform chemicals, FDCA will enable the food and beverage market to shift to bio-based plastics packaging solutions. In 2016, AVA Biochem began offering FDCA as part of its product portfolio to support the research and development of new packaging solutions.
What are your next goals?
AVA Biochem has already started discussions with industry leaders to further develop the downstream chemistry pathways for 5-HMF. We expect 5-HMF to become a bulk chemical in the near future. To ensure sufficient supply, our parent company AVA-CO2 is planning to build the world’s first sugar based large-scale production plant (LSPP) for 5-HMF and FDCA, together with partners from the entire value chain. Production capacity in phase 1 is planned to be 30,000 tonnes/year of FDCA and is set to increase to 120,000 tonnes/year of FDCA at full capacity. Other developments include testing 5-HMF as a replacement for formaldehyde, which is coming under increasing criticism due to its detrimental health effects.
AVA-CO2 recently launched a research project with Bern University of Applied Sciences, sponsored by the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) to replace formaldehyde with 5-HMF. The project will test whether 5-HMF can partially or fully replace formaldehyde the synthesis of phenolic resins (PF), melamine resins (MF) and urea resins (UF).
Formaldehyde is used up during the resin production, but a certain proportion still remains in the product. Partially replacing formaldehyde with 5-HMF in these products can drastically reduce the release of formaldehyde through cross-linking. Full replacement with 5-HMF would lead to no further formaldehyde emissions. The project aims to develop a formaldehyde-free, sustainable and harmless adhesive for industrial use in the wood-processing industry.
The food and pharmaceutical industries also show interest in 5-HMF, due to its ability to bind to haemoglobin and exert a positive influence on the binding capability of oxygen. Furthermore, as a carbonyl compound, 5-HMF can bind free amines and ammonia, removing them directly from the metabolism process. As ammonia is generated during intensive physical exertion, which affects muscles and mental concentration, 5-HMF can potentially improve physical and mental performance in humans.
As far as you’re concerned, why is the use of biological resources so important for the chemical industry?
Fossil fuel supplies are decreasing and challenges like climate change mean companies are increasingly looking for ways to lower their environmental footprint. Bio-based chemical as alternatives to petro-based products represent a more sustainable solution for applications across a range of sectors.
Bio-based materials like PEF also outperform their petro-based counterparts. PEF allows for energy savings and reductions in material use as it has higher gas barriers than traditional PET to CO2, oxygen and moisture, leading to a longer shelf life and therefore less food waste in the production process. PEF’s improved gas barrier also opens up new opportunities for replacing energy-intensive aluminium packaging. Another advantage of bio-based products is that synthesis processes can be more efficient and therefore more cost-effective.
It is for those reasons that the development and use of bio-based chemicals is crucial for chemical industry and beyond.
Is there a national plan to support the bioeconomy in Switzerland?
Biotechnology is key to Switzerland’s competitiveness. The country has one of the highest densities of biotechnology companies, relative to population. The Swiss government has launched a national research programme ‘NRP66’ which is looking into the value of wood as a potential raw material for plastics and many other materials. Wood is one of the most promising resources for second-generation sugars, so this programme is very important.
AVA Biochem is located in the Clariant Infrapark, which belongs to the BioValley biocluster, a leading life science bioregion. In Switzerland, there is policy support for bio-based R&D activities, biotech networks, technology transfer as well as commercialisation bodies.
From your point of view, what are the main differences between US and Europe with regard to policies to support the bioeconomy?
Key players in the bio-based market, North America and Europe have both implemented bioeconomy strategies which aim to replace petrochemicals with biomaterials. However, policy needs to catch up with the fast-growing market for bio-based alternatives. For example, in Europe, sectors such as bioenergy and biofuels currently have more incentives for buying feedstock, meaning that other markets like bio-based chemicals are forced to purchase feedstock with artificially-inflated prices.
Asia has a huge bioeconomy potential. Over the last few years, production capacity for bio-based materials has doubled in South-East Asia, with Korea and Thailand experiencing huge growth in the bioplastics market. China represents a market with untapped growth potential, but more political incentives are needed for bio-based companies to invest here.