PHA : bioplastics from side streams

Bioplastics based on PolyHydroxyAlkanoates (PHAs) offer interesting commercial opportunities. Although much is known about the benefits of this group of building blocks, PHAs have yet to take off commercially as their quality is inconsistent and the cost price too high. With the establishment of an integrated research programme, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research hopes to change this situation.

Wageningen Food & Biobased Research will start a research and development programme for PHAs in partnership with various interested parties.

Opportunities for PHAs

Despite the financial crisis in Europe, the bioplastics market continues to increase by around 20 percent a year. PHAs are a textbook example of bioplastics. The global production of this group of building blocks is expected to increase from 19 kilotons in 2011 to 145 kilotons in 2016. Nonetheless PHAs have yet to be successful: the quality is insufficiently stable and the cost price excessive. Research and development is required to overcome these challenges and make the most of commercial opportunities.

Benefits and markets

A major benefit of PHAs is that they can be both produced and broken down by micro-organisms in almost every environment (composting containers, soil and sea). The characteristics of a much studied PHA called PolyHydroxyButyrate (PHB) are comparable to substances such as polypropylene and polyethylene. There are many application possibilities for PHAs, including consumer and agricultural products, catering, packaging materials, coatings, rubbers and – in particular – high-quality pharmaceutical and medical products.

New ways to reduce costs and improve quality

The cost price for producing PHAs is currently too high due to the use of expensive growth medium components for the bacteria and the major investments required in fermentation facilities and downstream processing. There are, however, smart routes that can reduce costs, for instance by choosing to produce PHAs from various waste flows, such as wastewater (sediment) from sewage water treatment facilities and/or industrial wastewater from the paper industry. Heterogeneous biomass flows such as compost, exudates from beet leaves and even manure can probably be used as raw material as well. It is also easy to integrate such solutions within existing processes and systems. A sewage water treatment installation, for example, is already an operational system in which organic conversion processes take place, including logistics and licenses.

Nonetheless, valorising possible routes and processes and improving the quality of PHAs requires more research. The issue of whether ‘low-quality’ PHAs would be utilised more effectively as a source for chemicals and industrial building blocks also demands further study. Moreover, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research aims to increasingly zoom in on the requirements of end users: Which quality, composition and characteristics of PHAs do they need to develop good-quality end products? Based on these issues, we aim to complete the entire chain upstream and find out what is necessary at the start of the chain to develop a good-quality end product.

Partners needed for integrated research programme

Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is a specialist in the field of research into biobased polymers and microbial fermentation. We know how to reduce costs, namely by utilising existing side streams such as heterogeneous biomass. In partnership with Witteveen+Bos, which has a wealth of knowledge in the field of the application of sediment from sewage water treatment facilities, we study the opportunities for extracting PHAs from waste flows.

Establishing a successful research programme, however, requires more partners, such as water treatment companies, district water boards, companies (SMEs and large businesses), knowledge partners and end users of bioplastics. With an integrated programme (consortium) which combines all expertise in the field of material, polymer, bio and environmental technology, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research aims to attract funds for research into specific issues regarding PHAs with the eventual goal of accessing the commercial opportunities of PHAs.