TROY, MICH. — As bio-based plastics become increasingly competitive — global demand is set to grow 19 percent annually according to one study — DuPont Co. is working to build its portfolio of bio-based and sustainably sourced polymers.
The chemical giant expects about half its product line to be bio-based within 15 years, Rick Bell, development manager of DuPont’s performance polymers division, said at the Society of Plastics Engineers’ AutoEpcon.
“We are in the process of converting our polymers from [petrochemical] feedstocks to bio-based feedstocks, and that conversion rate is really dependent on the technology and the ability to do that economically,” he said.
DuPont is devoting resources to developing new bio-based polymers as well as new applications for those materials. In 2011, it spent $6.3 billion to acquire Danisco, a specialty food ingredients company with expertise in enzyme chemistry.
“One of the things that Danisco has is a lot of capability to take agriculture-based feedstocks … and break that material down through enzyme chemistry, to make new materials that are not based on petrochemical sources,” Patrick Lindner, DuPont’s president of performance polymers, told Plastics News. Lindner worked on the Danisco acquisition during his time in the company’s corporate plans department.
The Danisco acquisition has helped DuPont build its capabilities around the biological processes by which bacteria digest sugars or carbon sources and produce useful chemicals, Lindner said.
“We need the bugs to cooperate,” he said.
Expanding this area offers the potential to make lower-cost raw materials and polymers with new properties, he added.
For example, DuPont’s Sorona EP thermoplastic polymer, which the company says is made from 37 percent renewably sourced materials by weight, has a shiny surface that eliminates the need for a painting process, Lindner said. The Sorona material is also available as a stain-resistant fiber and can be used in apparel and residential and automotive carpeting — in fact it’s the fastest-growing fiber for carpeting in the U.S., according to Bell.
Sorona is made with sugar extracted from feed corn; where possible, DuPont uses feedstocks that do not compete with food sources, Bell said. The company uses castor beans grown in India as one of the feedstocks for nylons, which can actually be made more cost effectively from renewable sources than from a petrochemical source, Lindner said.
Currently, the cost of bio-based polymers is a key obstacle to the industry’s growth, market analyst Robert Eller told Plastics News.
“The purchasing agent is only interested in how many cents per pound can he save, and based on that, he’s not going to be interested in natural polymers,” he said. “On the other hand, if he is under some pressure, then he will think about it, but he’ll still want it at the same price, or even lower.”
That’s something DuPont has encountered as well, Lindner said.
“One of the key things that we’re running into in this industry, is how will customers that are very focused on performance … view a product that is equivalent but also is renewably sourced? Will they pay a premium? Will they view it as equivalent and will pay the same, but they like it as a nice add-on? We’re seeing examples all across the board,” Lindner said.
“Some are willing to pay a premium, and say renewably sourced is very important [and] I’m going to market that. Others are saying, if I have two materials I’m looking at, and they have equivalent performance, one is renewably sourced the other is not, basically the same price, I’ll take the renewably sourced.”
That perception could shift depending on the future of petrochemical sources, Eller said.
“In essence they’re creating a new monomer. And maybe one can look down the road and see that the cost of those new monomers will not rise as fast as with the fossil fuels. That’s a reasonable argument,” he said.
Lindner said he’s excited for DuPont’s future in bioplastics.
“We’ve invested in it, we’ll continue to invest in it, because we believe that our customers as they go forward are going to want to know that they’re working with partners and working with suppliers that have this capability,” he said.