New biopolymers created the initial buzz in bioplastics. But making drop-in, commodity chemicals from renewable feedstocks has captured the imagination of many in the chemical industry.
“The starch guys and the polylactic acid producers are still there and still rapidly expanding,” said Jim Lunt, founder and managing director of Jim Lunt and Associates LLC, a technology commercialization firm based in Wayzata, Minn.
“But the market trend is clearly moving to bio-based polymers that are identical to polymers made from petroleum,” Lunt said in an interview. “We're seeing a whole slew of startups focused on making building blocks to make large commodity polymers.
“Those drop-in replacements of existing petroleum-based monomers will be the first to market” of those now on the drawing board, rather than new bioresins with new products.
William Tittle, principal and director of San Francisco-based management and technology consulting firm Nexant Inc., agreed. “A wide variety of technologies are being developed for large, trillion-dollar, fungible commodity polymers like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene and PET.”
The reason: Companies are eager about the prospect of switching from volatile petroleum-based feedstocks to feedstocks that offer the promise of lower costs, lower environmental impact and more stability.
“It is not so much about the absolute price of oil, but the unpredictability of oil, and the inability to pass along price changes to customers,” said Allen Julian, business development director for renewable-chemicals company Draths Corp. in Lansing, Mich. “The forces are converging to make the time right for drop-in chemicals. Now we have to harness our technology, our will and our capital to make it happen.”
“The technologies for producing bioplastics are already in place and the paths are emerging for producing large-volume biopolymers for fungible chemicals using renewable feedstocks,” Tittle said in late June at the BioPlastek conference in New York.
“It is the biggest technical revolution in my lifetime,” he said. “We are seeing today the transformation from a petroleum-based industry to a biomass, renewable-food-based industry. This is a big deal, and it's not something down the road, it's happening as we speak. The industry is building off the success of the first movers to build ways to build new plastics.”
To be sure, bioplastics capacity today represents only 1 percent of the 460 billion pounds of polymers produced annually, and renewable drop-in chemicals will need to compete on price. But they also won't struggle like the new biopolymers have to date in order to gain market share, or even sometimes sell at premium prices, he said.
“Newer niche polymers have had more challenges gaining significant market and there is little evidence of them being able to gain a sustainable green premium price,” Tittle said. “By contrast, [São Paulo-based petrochemicals giant] Braskem SA sold out in three months on their green polyethylene and got a price premium for it.
“The world wants fungible bioplastics if they can be cost-competitive,” he said. “It's a big opportunity that's creating a crowded field with new contenders every day.”
It's still too early to determine which companies will emerge with the right combination of technology and price, Tittle said. “Don't be too optimistic about the prices projected, or the volumes. All those companies need to demonstrate the economics in commercial plants.”
But those that succeed can target huge, billion-dollar markets.
“If you can make existing polymers from renewable resources, and show you can move to non-food feedstocks, those will be the first to be adopted,” said Lunt, because consumers have made it clear that they don't think food should be used to make biopolymers.
But he cautioned that those companies making drop-in chemicals need to realize that they will “be immediately driven into the price wars” because they are making an identical polymer — not something that offers an improvement in performance.
“It will be all about who has the better price,” he said.
The other growing bioplastics trend is the rush by companies to switch away from food-based feedstocks such as corn and sugar cane to biomass, Lunt said.
“The other drumbeat the last 12 months is that consumers and brand owners are asking producers, ‘When are you going to move away from food crops as a feedstock?' “ he said.
“Brand owners are saying, ‘When will we be able to get a bioplastic material from non-food, non-edible feedstocks, and which ones will you use?' “ said Lunt. “That will be the dominant trend going forward. If you are not doing it today, brand owners will want to know how long will it be before you do.”
That's much the same view as Tittle's. “Corn and sugar are both transitional materials as we move to biomass,” he said.
However, the heightened interest in making commodity polymers from renewable feedstocks doesn't mean the end for new polymers like PLA, or for any of the many new bioresins under development.
“Brand owners are determining what will go and what will not go,” said Richard Gross, a professor at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. “And right now they are saying they want drop-in chemicals. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue new chemicals.”
“There are many people working on developing new polymers” with improved performance, he said.
“Even though many people are taking the low-risk, drop-in path to market, there is also room for polymers that offer new properties.”
Lunt also said he expects polymers such as PLA to continue to see strong growth.
“The PLA market has rebounded from its lull two years ago and sales are growing extremely fast,” he said.
“Singe-use products are still driving their market. I'm not sure they are making a lot of products for the durables market, although they would like to.”
He said he expects starch-based companies, as well as PLA maker NatureWorks LLC in Minnetonka, Minn., to have 20-30 percent growth annually over the next five years.
“The key to success, whether you are making newer biopolymers with new properties, or drop-in biopolymers,” added Tittle, “is to have technology that is competitive both with conventional, petroleum-based materials and emerging bio-based technologies.
“You need a management team with knowledge of the chemistry and the technology, and you need to partner with people upstream and downstream because it's a long value chain.”
“There is a great opportunity for companies to do well during this transformational change,” said Julian. “It is a huge market opportunity and there is space for all of us. And non-food feedstocks are clearly where we're headed because they are the easiest to make and likely to be lower-cost and more stable than petroleum prices.”