Bio-Based Materials Growing Into the Building Block of the Future
By Ryan Brinks l Business Development Media
Nature has never been better. First came biodegradable, which is better for our landfills. Next came recyclable, better for our resources. Then sustainable, better for our health and environment. But the rise of bio-based materials is simply better. And it is poised to help transform advanced manufacturing and take the United States to the economy of the future.
“It’s better goods, better solutions, better materials to manufacture in a better way, providing better jobs for a better economy and an overall better life,” said Corinne Young, CEO of re:chem, the Renewable Chemicals and Materials Alliance, in a recent interview. “We’re just beginning to experience step changes that will catalyze unanticipated innovation.”
The industry has taken lots of steps since the 1990s, when biodegradable plastic for silverware, plates, trays and packaging was hailed as a breakthrough, enabling corporations like McDonald’s to streamline waste into a single garbage bin and save a lot of hassle, U.S. Department of Agriculture Bioproducts Research Leader Bill Orts explained.
The “green” movement of the 2000s drove companies further toward 100 percent recyclable, fully compostable and bio-derived products, epitomized by Coca-Cola’s fully recyclable and up-to-30-percent green PlantBottle technology using sugarcane-sourced monoethylene glycol as opposed to petroleum-based MEG.
That development also qualified the beverage maker for the federal government’s BioPreferred program, which gives an advantage to green and partially green products when awarding federal contracts.
“It’s a big one,” Orts said of the incentive for going green.
And while European governments mandate the extra costs of green materials into product prices, Americans still opt for lower prices over environmental concerns or energy independence.
“Over time, particularly the last two to three years, the picture for natural gas has changed and the emphasis is more and more on cost — how do you give value — and not so much being environmentally friendly or replacing petroleum or protecting (oil) supplies,” said Bhima Vijayendran, a leading authority on advanced materials and partner at Redwood Innovation Partners.
That’s precisely where this decade’s bio-based advancements are stepping in.
“The third wave of success is in making products better that just happen to have a green story,” Orts said.
The pioneering example of that is carpet manufactured with DuPont’s Sorona poly trimethylene terephthalate, made from corn sugar-sourced propanediol and “flat out better than nylon polyester,” he said.
Since then, many other success stories have also been written. Young pointed to NatureWorks’ proprietary Ingeo polylactide polymer, part of serviceware, home textiles, food packaging, folded cartons, films, durable goods, cards, bottles and apparel products now sold on 40,000 shelves, as well as Elevance Renewable Sciences’ waxes and candles, personal care products, detergents and cleaners, and antimicrobials.
And it’s the unique properties of bio-based materials that fuel such success.
“There are certain properties or performance characteristics you can’t get from petroleum-based materials; they’re not available, hard to get or expensive,” Vijayendran said, citing the Nobel Prize-winning metathesis catalyst technology that modifies non-food plant oil to make building blocks that are very different from how you make them with petroleum.
Bio-based materials are less toxic, safer, higher-performing, cost-competitive and a better result at the end of their life, Young noted. “There really isn’t a downside.”
Another example is the ability to adhere polymers at room temperature rather than the high heat required by petroleum-based polymers. The commercialization of such a technology could shut down ovens currently used to coat and paint cars, saving tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars in capital expenditures, significantly reducing operating expenditures and speeding up assembly line outputs, she explained. “We’re helping revitalize Detroit with fundamental changes to what’s core and central to how we manufacture.”
“Many auto markets and transportation in general are looking for these types of materials. That was not the case five or six years ago,” Vijayendran added. “... Ten years ago, there were many lab experiments, and today many have a clear value proposition and are getting into full-scale production.”
With exponential technological improvements over the next five to 20 years, Young predicted bio-based materials could provide key properties like conductivity, increased thermal stability, stereocomplex formation and tensile strength to the electronics industry.
For Vijayendran, their compatibility with 3D printing processes is attractive. “They have a reasonable or better than reasonable shot at replacing ABS because of their price point and performance profile,” he said, highlighting LEGO’s challenge to material suppliers to develop a sustainable resin with which to replace the company’s use of ABS.
Such drop-in material replacements are the goal of much bio-based material science, but the growth of 3D printing could provide opportunities for novel new bio-based materials to get in at the very start of production.
3D printing of high-performance nylons and polyesters is influencing every consumer market, from wind turbine platforms to pharmaceuticals, beauty products and industrial components, Young noted. “It could really unleash an exponential leap frog in what we manufacture and how we manufacture.”
Automakers in Europe and Japan are moving to biofibers and biomaterials to make biocomposites that “potentially have better performance in the structural area,” Vijayendran said. Startups such as Malama Biocomposites are actively looking at biomaterials for use in construction and packaging markets.
Yet another area that is getting a lot of attention is the use of bio-based lubricants to replace petroleum-based counterparts for engine oils due to their inherent biodegradability, low aquatic toxicity, improved lubricity and overall better environmental footprint. Startups such as Biosynthetic Technologies are offering cost-effective solutions in this market.
And unlike glass fiber and others used to reinforce polymers, there are no toxicity and handling issues. Meanwhile, carbon fiber is still too expensive, and boron in fiber glass has issues as well, he said.
In the medical industry, “quite a few companies are involved in implantables and devices. … There’s a lot of activity and effort in using 3D printing to make people with deformed fingers or hands a prosthetic-type device,” he continued. “Some new polymers derived from bio sources have a pretty good shot at making it into a 3D-printed device.”
Then there’s biodegradable, biocompatible materials and systems that go into the body. “The emphasis on that type of application, I believe, will increase because the price is high, so cost is not an issue.”
And despite all of the potential surrounding bio-based materials, one of their most promising attributes is not being adversarial to the petroleum incumbants.
From arbitrage to risk mitigation and the need to diversify chemical feedstocks, there are reasons for oil companies to like bio-based materials.
“Current petroleum products have become quite mature. There’s been no real new breakthrough in materials in probably the last 30 years,” Vijayendran stated; now margins are being squeezed by the Asian producers, and companies like BASF and DuPont are exiting the commodity polymer segment and looking to the biotech wave to increase margins and profits.
What they may soon find is a better way.
Often plagued by the limitations of sugar’s cost and volatility, developers of bio-based materials are keen on exploring one workaround in particular. Typically, soil bacteria fed sugar and robbed of an essential element forces the creation of polyester from excess carbon, but only one in three carbons is successful in this conversion, Orts explained. With sugar consumption amounting to 22 cents each, there’s 65 cents wrapped up in sugar costs alone. “You can’t get out of the fermenter for less than $1.25 per pound,” he said.
Unless the microorganism doesn’t eat sugar.
“Turning methane and carbon dioxide into plastic is the biggest opportunity of my next 10 years,” Orts said. “All the sugar problems go away.”
Industry pioneers are making the sugars that go into the biological process from algae, microorganisms and cheap synthetic methods using ionic liquids, said Keith Gillard, a general partner at Pangaea Ventures. When oil was extremely high-priced a few years ago, his venture capital company discovered Calysta, which developed technology that utilizes an organism that can be fed methane rather than sugar to create the building blocks of nutritional feeds and animal health products for fish and livestock, as well as industrial materials and consumer products.
Methane is the prime ingredient in natural gas, and “natural gas has enormous cost advantages in North America,” he said. “When we finished our due diligence, we closed the book on cheap sugar; it will not be able to compete.”
The process required no genetic modification to tap into its markets and a very manageable regulatory process.
“It’s still a bio feedstock; it just has a different input,” Gillard said. “It turns food versus fuel on its head; we’re making food from fuel.”
Calysta has already partnered with NatureWorks, and Orts mentioned Newlight Technologies, Kiverdi and Mango Materials as other pioneers in the space.
But for Young, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She said there are 70,000 chemicals manufactured from petroleum feedstocks, while USDA estimates point to a potential for 50,000 chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.
“It’s the sector,” she concluded. “Innovations are catalyzing unanticipated follow-on additive manufacturing innovations. There are 50,000-plus chemical compounds that could each unleash a whole round of follow-on innovations.”
Overall, the materials market, including chemicals and organics, is $3 trillion per year globally and $1 trillion a year in the United States, Vijayendran said. “Today biomaterials are about 5 percent of that. By 2025, the number is expected to be more like 15 percent. It’s systematically getting into each market and proving its place.”
Polymers alone have market potential that is worth more than $100 billion, according to a new Lux Research report, particularly for the biomedical and agriculture industries.
From Gillard’s vantage point, DSM is a frontrunner in leading the investment in research and development; “That is their business,” he said, also noting that 10 years ago, BASF committed to a 40-year vision to replace fossil fuels as a feedstock in all of its materials and has made a venture capital investment in Renmatix to support that.
Vijayendran listed off BASF, DuPont, Bayer, Mitsubishi Chemicals, Emery Oleochemicals, Sime Darby, PTT Chemicals, Evonik and others as leaders. A just-released Research and Markets report on bio-based polylactic acid adds Braschem, Eastman Chemicals, NatureWorks, Nova Chemicals and Sinopec as key vendors.
“Everybody is active in this space now — you can’t ignore it,” Gillard said.
“Renewable carbon is the future, and they’re taking a significant amount of position in it,” Vijayendran added.
Right now, however, it’s not without its challenges.
The first question is who will buy it, Orts said, as “everything’s about price points.”
That was the case with BASF’s large market share in supplements, which eroded quickly when Chinese manufacturers entered the market. Gillard said the company thought it held a good cost position and expected customers to recognize its quality and safety record, but the untouchable cost advantage of the Chinese made all the difference. Forced to innovate, BASF found the fermentation process blew away the cost basis of doing it synthetically.
“Bio-based manufacturing is the only way to bring costs down, and it does so very effectively,” he said.
Even if cost does make sense, supply chains are often inadequate. Supporters can herald the superiority of bio-based PET, but “we haven’t proven it’s worth switching the supply chain for,” Orts said.
Vijayendran’s own patents for biomaterial-derived toner for office printers and copiers that fuses at lower temperatures show the technology has the potential to use less energy, be far more environmentally benign and safer to handle than its petroleum-based competitors using styrene and bis phenol A building blocks, and be scalable, “but show me the supply chain. There’s risk; it’s the chicken and the egg kind of thing.”
Meanwhile, the race toward the next breakthrough is a global one. In additive manufacturing and renewable technology, the last few years have seen higher investment rounds come from abroad, where investors have a longer view, an exit strategy and patient money, Young said. “For the U.S., how much opportunity will we capture and lead, and how much will we see go abroad?”
That’s the question that has compelled her to frequent the halls of the nation’s Capitol, from which a new Farm Bill has emerged that includes biorefinery loan guarantees coming this spring, a “gamechanger to help level the playing field” and enable U.S. research and development to commercialize, resulting in “extraordinary cross-section economic growth impact in the U.S.,” she said.
“... The opportunity and the impact of bio-based materials is extraordinary, and we’re doing everything we can in Washington, D.C., to advance a suite of policies that help de-risk and accelerate so a competitive environment can take root in the U.S., flourish and grow.”
If it does, Young predicts the bloom of bio-based materials to be fast-moving and global.
“They’re happening today,” she said of major developments. “Biorefineries are up and operating at commercial scale around the globe. Platforms have a pipeline of ongoing improvements that will yield even more performance. The downstream value chain is getting more engaged and incorporating more applications and components. … We need a vision and systems approach. How we manufacture goods is core and central to our economy.”