While the polymerisation of biobased monomers is an important step in making plastics, resins and coatings from plant materials which can compete with their fossil counterparts, there are currently no pilot facilities for this process available in the Dutch R&D ecosystem. Industry, regional bodies and research institutes all see a clear need to realise such facilities in the near future. Two new initiatives in the Netherlands are aimed at realising an open access pilot plant for polymerisation.
The catalyst for both initiatives is the Biobased Performance Materials research programme, coordinated by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. The programme facilitates fundamental and applied research into new biobased materials that can compete with their fossil counterparts and is sponsored by the Dutch government’s top sector Chemistry.
“When the end market is not sufficiently in sight, a dedicated polymerisation pilot plant is often too costly and risky for individual companies,” says Christiaan Bolck, director of the BPM programme. “This is why the BPM programme aims to scale up the production of new polymers with open access pilot initiatives that can result in unique properties and/or application possibilities. There are currently no facilities with the required specialist knowledge available to companies who are looking to scale up but cannot or will not invest in a dedicated pilot plant on their own. Due to the economic opportunities for upscaling – and potential spin-off – it would be best if such a pilot is linked to a suitable industrial infrastructure.”
Catalyst for a biobased economy
Both Chemport Europe region in the North of the Netherlands and the Biobased Delta region in the South West of the Netherlands have a good starting position in this regard for different reasons. This is why the regions have joined forces with BPM to establish world-class shared facilities.
The first pilot facility, planned in Etten-Leur, is focused on ring-opening polymerisation of biobased monomers. Jan Noordegraaf (general director at Synbra Technology): “The realisation of this pilot, adjacent to the Synbra premises, enables the development of new copolymers which can convert new biobased monomers into polymers in an infrastructure that we have always wanted to achieve with the parties in the Biobased Delta.” Five larger and ten smaller companies have already indicated a desire to make use of the pilot.
The second pilot facility is planned in Emmen, at the Sustainable Polymer Innovation Campus (SPIC). “The SPIC innovation cluster already has all the required hardware, and enables us to easily make the link to applications, such as multifilament yarns or monofilaments for 3D printing,” says Gerard Nijhoving (managing director of Senbis, a company that carries out applied research in the field of polymers). “Emmen has already realised lots of research into polycondensation to improve the performance of polyester and polyamide yarns. We have received many questions over recent years regarding biopolymers, in particular, as they often have a polyester-like structure. As upscaling these can be difficult we are initiating a polycondensation pilot facility with a capacity of 50 to 100 kg a day.”
Ring-opening and polycondensation polymerisation
According to Bolck, the two routes – ring-opening and polycondensation – fit within the BPM programme well and are aligned to the research of Wageningen University & Research. “We can now make polymers on the kilogram scale and the pilot facilities can be a significant catalyst for marketing biobased building blocks. They therefore meet a major precondition for transforming the fossil economy into a biobased economy. We encourage the industry to join this initiative so that we can realise successful, large-scale facilities.”