Polyester is one of the most versatile plastics, also known from the PET bottle. Many large soft drink manufacturers have been using PET bottles for decades. We have also been recycling these bottles for many years in the Netherlands. Cumapol is one of the parties involved in this business. For instance, the soft drink bottles from Lidl are processed and recycled by Cumapol in Emmen. The result: granules that are being reused for all kinds of plastic applications. So Cumapol are doing quite a good job of recycling these bottles. However, the ‘bottleneck’ in this system is that polyester is still a petroleum-based material. And this is precisely what we want to get rid of, was the idea of Niels Schenk and Marco Brons, when they started on the development of BioPET100. A polyester with the same properties, but without the petroleum ingredient. But, how can you have a process in which bottles, packaging materials and all sorts of film are produced, without using the raw material that is crucial to give these materials their unique properties? Marco and Niels have the answer and Chemport Emmen contacted them.
They have been busy trying to find a solution for the past few years. A solution that extracts the petroleum from the polyester and that does not need a new processing structure. The recycling line of Cumapol, in which petroleum-based polyester is recycled, will have to be able to recycle the new polyester without creating additional streams. Niels searched for a solution at BioBTX for the use of petroleum in polyester. Niels: “With BioPET100 we have found an innovative solution. Based on the various biomass streams, we have succeeded in producing, in an ingenious process, the exact same building blocks that are also extracted from petroleum.” But how did you do that? Marco Brons adds: “In fact, BioBTX has built a time machine.” A time machine? Please explain, Marco. “BioBTX worked with the University of Groningen to construct an exceptionally useful device. Niels: “What we in fact do is to accelerate the process of converting biomass into hydrocarbons (normally extracted from natural gas and petroleum), which is a process that took the earth millions of years. We are now able to do this in a fraction of a second. This is why Marco calls it a time machine. Because we can use this technology to extract the same building blocks from all kinds of biomass as from petroleum, there is no difference in the way you use BioPET100 or the traditional PET. The properties are exactly the same.”
And that is precisely the revolution that Niels and Marco wanted to start. Marco: “Worldwide, there are many developments to make new plastics without using petroleum. What makes BioPET100 unique is that the current system does not need to be adapted. And this is important, because in the future we will increasingly need plastics. The unique properties of plastics enable us to produce for instance lighter cars and aeroplanes, which reduces fuel consumption. Of course it is important that we support this growth in a sustainable manner. We have found a solution that enables us to continue to produce these plastics, but in a green way.
The best thing about switching from fossil to bio-based is that it offers more possibilities. Niels: “Take, for instance, the plastic that Avantium produces. This inspiring company has developed a new type of plastic from completely new building blocks. Building blocks that did not exist before. And this makes their product really special. A wonderful addition to the traditional plastics that we can replicate with our green technology.”
So, Marc and Niels have developed a golden egg, or rather the goose that lays those eggs. All they do is replicate what the earth does, so that we don't have to wait millions of years before we have oil. But... does that not mean that you are still working with petroleum? What you do is to replicate it? Niels: “No, we make something entirely new! We produce the same basic chemicals that you extract from petroleum, but we use a different raw material, namely biomass. The machine that we have developed enables us to accelerate the process of making the same building blocks. We can use almost any biomass stream for the production of these building blocks and we are therefore no longer dependent on fossil materials, such as petroleum. And that is in line with the current view that we have to decouple petroleum from the economy. With our development we no longer need to use petroleum, but we can use the biomass streams from the region.”
BioBTX has recently won the European Innovation Award, which means European recognition for this innovative technology. “To give an even better explanation: you could compare our invention with green and grey energy. Anyone who uses green energy, still receives good quality electricity from their socket. However, the fact that green energy is generated by means of a solar panel and not by using a fossil fuel makes the difference. The same goes for our plastic. Actually, we have developed a high-tech solar panel with which we make the same building blocks as those that we extract from petroleum, only we use biomass. In this case, we use crude glycerin which is groundbreaking. Crude glycerin is a waste product of biodiesel from biomass. We have succeeded in extracting from this waste product the building blocks that are required for PET. We have approached SunOil in Emmen to cooperate with us on this. This company produces biodiesel from biomass and their glycerin is extremely suitable. This is exactly why we have won this award.”
And economically, it offers even more advantages. All the money that we are currently losing by importing oil, will in the future continue to circulate in our own regional economy, and this will attract new investments and create regional jobs. It also greatly reduces the number of transport movements and the switch from fossil to bio-based will result in a significant reduction of CO2 2 emissions. In our case, the CO2 2 footprint of BioPET100 is even negative.”