Bioplastics and Bio-based Chemicals: An Industrial Perspective - event review

On 8 November, the SCI Biotechnology Group held its first open public lecture at Belgrave Square on Bioplastics and bio-based chemicals: An Industrial Perspective. The lecture was given by Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Technologies – a leading innovator and supplier of starch and cellulose bioplastics.

Paul set the development of bio-based plastics in the context of petrochemical derived plastics of which some 300 million tonnes are produced worldwide representing around 4% of oil production. Western consumers use more than 100kg per annum of plastics, principally as packaging materials. A large proportion of this production ends up in the environment as landfill. Paul also emphasised the great difference in scale between conventional plastic production and bio-based production, contrasting new million tonne PET production facilities with current demonstrator bio-based facilities at the kilo tonne scale. Paul showed the pathways by which the petrochemical industry produces its platform chemicals to provide the building blocks for the materials we actually use; from plastics to complex pharmaceuticals.

Paul discussed Biome’s current first generation bioplastics based on corn starch, polylactic acid, and poly hydroxyalkanoates, which can be tailored by formulation for particular applications and are supplied in granular form. Currently, these bio-based plastics do not have the performance characteristics of conventional plastics and their production costs are often 2–5 times higher. Thus, market opportunities often have to be based on consumer awareness of the environmental advantages of bio-based materials.

Paul also showed how sugars from plants could also be converted to platform chemicals having the functional groups needed for conversion to useful chemicals. Currently, bio-based processes, such as fermentation, can be used to convert sugars to platform chemicals but that conventional chemical synthesis is often required for further conversion. The routes to higher value chemicals are rather different for each source. Bio-based chemicals often require reductive pathways where conventional routes are generally oxidative. He emphasised that the production of these chemicals from biomass is non-trivial, requiring – for example, expensive pre-treatment to release the initial sugars.

Paul discussed current research being pursued by the company on the use of lignin in combination with synthetic biology for chemical production as a bio-based route to aromatic compounds which would lead to diversification of the material properties that can be attained; such as strength, flexibility and temperature resistance.

Finally, Paul emphasised where further effort was required to make bioplastics and bio-based chemicals truly competitive. Current processes are seen as not sufficiently selective and are often too dilute. Rates of conversion as distinct from yield are not high enough. Current processes are batch and the development of continuous processes was required.

The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A session and a networking reception.

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