In this exclusive column for New Materials News, Paul Mines, CEO of bioplastics manufacturer Biome Bioplastics, discusses the challenges that face the traditional oil-based polymer industry – including its environmental impact and volatile oil prices – and explains how lignin-based plastics may offer a viable solution.
Five per cent of worldwide oil production is used to make plastics, and the plastics industry continues to grow year-on-year. The turnover of European plastics companies reached €20 billion in 2013 and shows no sign of slowing.
But as the plastics industry grows it also has to face up to the challenges of its environmental impact; volatile oil prices; the likely increase of petrochemical prices over the long term; and consumer demand for genuinely sustainable products.
What are bioplastics?
In response to these factors, the bioplastics industry is expected to reach 6.7 million tonnes of production by 2018. Bioplastics are made partly or completely from polymers of biological sources, like sugar cane, potatoes, or cellulose from trees, straw or cotton.
At the moment, such plastics are mainly used for packaging and car parts, but consumer electronics, single-use cutlery, toys, sports equipment and the construction markets are also using more and more bio-based plastics, with a growing number of big brands turning to such products. However, bioplastics currently constitute less than one per cent of the 300m tonnes of plastics produced worldwide on an annual basis.
One of the causes for the existing low market penetration rate is that production costs are significantly higher when using natural raw materials rather than oil-derived feedstock.
Ambitious research and development efforts are required to source low-cost, renewable inputs that also allow bioplastics to deliver the same performance (such as strength and durability) as their oil-based counterparts.
The market potential of bioplastics
Industrial biotechnology, using biological processes to develop sustainable materials and chemicals, may hold the answer to this significant market challenge. Industrial biotechnology has been identified by UK government as a field that holds significant potential for a sustainable economy, with forecasts that the sector could deliver £4-12 billion in the UK alone over the next 10 years.
Meanwhile WWF estimates that industrial biotechnology processes could mitigate up to 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, making a significant contribution to tackling climate change.
At Biome Bioplastics, we believe that using industrial biotechnology to extract large quantities of high value, sustainable chemicals from natural sources will be a game changer for the bioplastics market.
The most interesting source of these chemicals is lignin, the complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants. Lignin contains organic chemicals that are similar to petrochemical compounds.
If these can be extracted at scale they will provide the low-cost, renewable feedstock the industry has been looking for. Millions of tonnes of lignin are produced every year as a by-product of the pulp and paper industry, making it readily available. By using a waste material, there is no need to take up valuable land for growing the feedstock, and no competition with agricultural uses like growing food.
Extracting lignin for commercial use
The main challenge, however, is how to extract the chemicals. This is a problem scientists have been trying to solve for more than 30 years with little success. Last year, our pioneering research project with the University of Warwick successfully proved that bacteria found in soil can be used to manipulate the breakdown pathway of lignin.
We were then able to control and improve that process using synthetic biology in order to produce chemicals that are suitable for the manufacture of bioplastics.
Following this success, we have now begun a £3 million, three-year development programme to scale up this technology in order to demonstrate commercial viability and the potential for high-volume manufacturing.
The scale-up work will involve several parallel projects undertaken in partnership with specialist units at the Universities of Warwick, Liverpool and Leeds, as well as the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) on Teesside.
We are also conducting research to investigate the possibility of extracting similar organic chemicals from the cellulose portion of lignocellulose, in order to expand the possible line of raw materials for the production of bioplastics.
Challenging the dominance of oil-based polymers
Our intention here is simple but certainly ambitious; success in this work would allow us to challenge the dominance of oil-based polymers. This is no easy task.
The oil-based chemicals industry has taken some seventy years to reach huge scale and achieve sophisticated refinement, bringing the world great economic and societal benefits.
Unfortunately, this has come at an environmental and climate cost that we are yet to confront. At Biome Bioplastics, our hunch is that industrial biotechnology is the disruptive tool that will allow a new industry to emerge, delivering the same benefits without the damaging impact.