The Dutch company Avantium is leading the way in replacing plastic PET bottles and other oil-based products, with 'green' versions made from sugar derivatives – starch, protein and cellulose. Success in making the technology break-through has been partly achieved by the technological expertise brought to the company through the European Commission's Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) mobility support scheme.
Avantium is a spin-off from the petrochemicals giant Royal Dutch Shell and, up until 2005, its main business was focused on contract research for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The company decided to broaden its base and move into product and process development to exploit its in-house expertise in the field of advanced catalytic research. The company initiated its own R&D programme focused on biomass conversion. In particular, using sugar and starch based products to replace the petrochemical feedstock generated from oil.
To support its move into this new sector the company was able to bring in three specialist researchers under the Marie Curie scheme to fill the gaps in its knowledge.
The company's Chief Technology Officer is Gert-Jan Gruter, former Professor for Polymer Catalysis at Eindhoven University of Technology, who explains: "At that time Avantium lacked the in-depth knowledge of carbohydrate chemistry and bio-based polymers to help it produce bio substitutes for oil-based products in bulk production chains.
"The objective of this Transfer of Knowledge project was to expand the company's knowledge in these areas by recruiting, training and hosting experienced researchers in these fields for a two year period."
Laszlo Sipos, a post doctorate researcher, joined the Avantium team as a Marie-Curie fellow in 2006 and succeeded in developing the key elements in the final stage of the process (catalytic polymerisation of FDCA to PEF). This work also resulted in the filing of two patents.
In 2008 Sipos was offered a permanent contract with Avantium as a Scientist (now Senior Scientist) after ending his Marie Curie project. He now leads the technical aspect of the process development efforts for the PEF bottles.
A critical aspect of Avantium's R&D was the development of bio-based replacement of the building block of the PET bottle. The introduction of Cesar Munoz de Diego, a post-doctorate researcher, was very successful in developing the required catalytic oxidation process. His pioneering work resulted in two patent applications being filed. Cesar Munoz de Diego subsequently moved back to his native country in 2010 and now continues to work in research and development in Madrid.
A third recruit under the Marie Curie scheme was a software development specialist, Nathan Brown. After supporting the development of informatics at Avantium he moved to Novartis in Switzerland to expand the company's expertise, and now works with the Institute of Cancer Research in London.
The legacy of the three Marie Curie researchers will be the sugar-based fully recyclable PEF bottles that will steadily replace the familiar PET bottles. The beauty of the PEF bottle is not only its bio-based origin but also its superior thermal and mechanical properties.
The patented technology developed by Avantium is known as YXY (pronounced as icksy) – and represents a family of green building blocks for making materials and fuels that can compete on both price and performance with oil based alternatives, but which have a superior environmental footprint.
A pilot plant for developing and demonstrating PEF technology with a capacity of 40 tons per year was opened in December 2011. Avantium has entered multi-year collaboration programmes with major brands such as Coca-Cola and Danone to introduce PEF to replace petrochemical based alternatives.
The collaboration programmes which continue the development of PEF and make it ready for mass production and recycling are key to securing a smooth transition into the mass production phase of PEF bottles. Commercial production of PEF is anticipated in about three to four years.
Gert-Jan Gruter commented: "The contribution of Marie Curie supported researchers has been essential in enabling us to undertake the very important initial development of these next generation 'green' bio-plastic materials. We believe that the PEF will become the new world standard for polyester bottles."
with the possibilities it opens up for future work in vaccine discovery, was recognised with the naming of Professor Lomonossoff as Innovator of the Year 2012 by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), UK.