New Bioplastic Mashup Spells Doom For Petrochemical Industry

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Two global industry giants, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland, have just announced a new “breakthrough” process for producing a high performance, 100% biodegradable bioplastic building block. To be honest, the bioplastic field is choked with breakthroughs these days, but we’re particularly interested in this one because it involves two US-based global corporate heavyweights with enough clout to push back against entrenched political interests supported by the petroleum industry.

bioplastic ADM and DuPont

The Big Boys Wade Into Bioplastic

There’s an old saw about bringing a knife to a gunfight, and that pretty much describes the uphill battle that clean tech has historically fought when it comes to bringing alternative energy and green chemistry to the marketplace.

Fossil energy companies still dominate the political scene but with companies Dupont (via DuPont Industrial Biosciences) and Archer Daniels Midland in the mix, the lobbying dynamics could begin to shift dramatically.

That could be a for better or worse situation in terms of other issues regarding the two companies, but if you focus in on the clean tech field, things get interesting.

We’re thinking that the bioplastic venture could help undercut their longstanding support for the Koch-funded lobbying group ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council). ALEC has been focused like a laser on supporting extractive industries but it has been bleeding corporate support for the past several years over its support for extremist positions (including “states rights,” but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms), so cutting ties with the organization would put DuPont in good company.

Just last year, the influential green shareholder advocacy organization As You Sow targeted DuPont (the parent company) for a shareholder resolution aimed at nudging the company to disclose potential shareholder risks resulting from its lobbying activities. If the group’s campaign proves effective, that could also result in a shift of DuPont’s political dollars.

When President Obama launched the American Business Pledge on Climate Pledge last July in support of a strong outcome at the COP21 climate talks in Paris, neither company made the short list of 13 original pledgees. By December 1, though, the list had grown to 73 signers including Dupont, which signed on to this boilerplate:

We applaud the growing number of countries that have already set ambitious targets for climate action. In this context, we support the conclusion of a climate change agreement in Paris that takes a strong step forward toward a low-carbon, sustainable future.

We recognize that delaying action on climate change will be costly in economic and human terms, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy will produce multiple benefits with regard to sustainable economic growth, public health, resilience to natural disasters, and the health of the global environment. 

It looks like ADM missed the boat this time around, but with DuPont on board the sustainability train, the relationship with ALEC is beginning to look shaky. We’re guessing it’s only a matter of time before both companies jump the ALEC ship and commit to national clean tech policies.

Aside from touchy-feely goodness, bottom line factors also come into play. DuPont, for example, has found that production of its proprietary, sustainably sourced propanediol, consumes up to 40 percent less energy than its fossil equivalent.

A Bioplastic Breakthrough

Where were we? Oh right, the new “breakthrough” bioplastic venture. Here’s the rundown on the new bioplastic from ADM’s press office:

The companies have developed a method for producing furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) from fructose. FDME is a high-purity derivative of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), one of the 12 building blocks identified by the U.S. Department of Energy that can be converted into a number of high-value, bio-based chemicals or materials that can deliver high performance in a number of applications.

You can get more information on that Top 12 list from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which came up with the list back in 2004 as a guidepost for the chemical industry. This schematic represents the agency’s hopes for biobased FDCA:

bioplastic derivatives NREL

Here’s what NREL had to say about FDCA back in 2004, when it compiled the list:

The primary technical barriers to production and use of FDCA include development of effective and selective dehydration processes for sugars. The control of sugar dehydration could be a very powerful technology, leading to a wide range of additional, inexpensive building blocks, but it is not yet well understood… Necessary R&D will include development of selective dehydration systems and catalysts. FDCA formation will require development of cost effective and industrially viable oxidation technology that can operate in concert with the necessary dehydration processes.

The bioplastic industry has come a long way since then, as demonstrated by the new DuPont-ADM venture.

To gild the lily, the new process is energy efficient and does not require a particularly enormous capital outlay.

Better (Bio)Plastic Bottles

Like them or not, single-use plastic bottles are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Their huge numbers and global penetration make them low-hanging fruit for commercial bioplastic so it’s no surprise that plastic bottles are first on the list for DuPont and ADM.

The pair’s first project will involve using FDME to produce a polymer with an even longer name, polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF), which apparently out-performs fossil polymers in terms of shelf life.

The two companies aren’t quite ready to scale up to full commercial production, but plans are in the works to build a demonstration plant in Illinois that will crank out 60 tons a year. The idea is to provide partner companies with enough product to use for testing and research before launching into full production mode, so stay tuned.

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Image credits (screenshots): top via ADM, bottom via NREL.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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