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Published on January 25th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


New Bioplastic Mashup Spells Doom For Petrochemical Industry

January 25th, 2016 by  

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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Julie Rosenthal

    Thank you for your informative, interesting and easy to understand article!

  • Simple INDIAN

    What if humans of earth, reduced their consumption of plastics without new inventions, petitions or pressures.

  • Ross

    What’s the proposed source of the fructose and does it make sense from a sustainability point of view as an input?

    • Otis11

      Given it’s location in the Midwest and the current processing facilities capable of turning corn into high fructose corn syrup, I’m going to go with corn…

      Which means probably not. Depending on how much we need… Though if we stop this traffic ethanol thing (Well, cellulose ethanol might make sense, but duo the corn thing) we might be able to make it net positive. Plus, it’s a step. We might be able to find a better source soon. Lots of little steps…

  • JamesWimberley

    Clickbait headline. FDME is one of hundreds of chemical intermediates that Du Pont and other chemical companies use. It will take decades to convert the whole chemical complex away from fossil fuels. Look first at the big-tonnage processes like the Haber one for ammonia.

    Shifting the feedstock to biomass is only a very partial victory in any case. ADM’s suppliers are big industrial farms dependent on synthetic fertilisers.

    I suggest reading this as an indicator that the chemical industry, like aviation, is preparing itself for the transition, and won’t be caught out by regulatory and tax policies promoting it. Unlike fossil fuels, it has a secure future, and will protect it.

    • harisA

      It should also be mentioned that use of renewable biomass for feedstock has other ecological and sociological issues.

      I would also suggest that in serious discussions, superlative words like ‘explode’, ‘doom’ etc. should only be used when smeothing is actually exploding or doom is inevitable. Just sayin:-)

    • Jenny Sommer

      Do you believe we can transition to a petroleum free (not quite free but maybe 10m bbl/d instead of 96m) society?
      Just read that one…totally crazy if you ask me.

  • harisA

    Petro plastic is as clean as bioplastic. It is the burning of petroleum that is the problem.

    • Non-biodegradability is a problem. Think: plastic soup.

      • harisA

        Unfortunately, very few things biograde in landfills. True these plastics can be composted.

        Plastics aregenerally polymers of simple hydrocarbons (e.g polyethylene). I am sure if chemical companies wanted they can come up with these complex compounds described in this article using petroleum feedstocks.

        • @disqus_HUrYZCgsIp

          Sometimes one has to wonder if solutions to many issues are not discovered or buried after discovery because the treatment is more profitable that the cure.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Do you like a little plastic in your fish you eat?

      • harisA

        Biodegradeble plastic also can be made from petroleum. Just because feedstock comes biomass, does not mean the products and bye products will automatically be green.

        In old days lot of feedstocks (like ether, alcohol etc) came from wood. Now they come from hydrocarbons. Baekelite, which was a universally used plastic (almost all car distributer caps were made from it) was synthesized from methanol, also known as wood alcohol.

        Due to overfishing concerns, I do not eat fish.

        • Joseph Dubeau

          “Biodegradeble plastic also can be made from petroleum.”
          It isn’t “Biodegradeble” It’s in the fish at your local grocery store.
          Here in California and other places.

  • @disqus_HUrYZCgsIp

    Finally, a viable green solution.

    • Adrian

      Tap water? (Ignoring the Flint, MI debacle for the moment).

  • ADW

    “…a demonstration plant in Illinois that will crank out 60 tons a year.”

    2014 the world produced something like 300+ million metric tons.
    So, lots of upside?…..

  • Boris

    Tina’s articles are long

    • Matt

      Would have been nice to have the bio-plastic first, and then the political as the last 2/3s.

      • ADW

        Good rule of thumb…
        Look for this phrase “Where were we? Oh right,..”
        Then start reading.

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