Avantium’s furanic technology, a giant awakening

Just two years ago Tom van Aken, Avantium’s CEO, called its 2,5-furanic dicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a sleeping giant. But since Coca-Cola and other big players are putting bags of development money into the product, this giant is coming to life and almost everybody in green chemical industry watches it very closely.

Avantium is a small science based, chemical technology research company in Amsterdam. Almost every month Avantium issues a new press release about another big company willing to do research with FDCA or signing a contract in millions of euros or dollars for further development. It looks like if furanics will be the new chemical building blocks for the future. The difference with the old petrochemicals is that they are green. Avantium’s YXY-technology – as they call it – is a patented technology that converts biomass into furanic building blocks that can compete on price and performance with the old oil based petrochemical products.

What is their secret? Two years ago the American Department of Energy (DoE) named ten green chemical building blocks to play a future role in the biobased chemical industry, mostly alcohols and acids. Among these ten there was only one compound with an aromatic ring (like in benzene), in this case a five-ring with an enclosed oxygen molecule. If we consider the huge amount of aromatics being used in petrochemical industry, one could imagine the possibilities of furanics. That prospect is now coming true. Furanics can be made from a range of carbohydrate sources including corn syrup or high fructose syrups. They can be converted into furanic dicarboxylic acid, a green chemical building block very much comparable to terephthalic acid (TPA) which is produced in millions of tons all over the world. From TPA you can make about any (petro) polymer: polyesters, polyamides (nylons), polyurethanes and a whole range of thermosetting materials like aramid fibres.

Green plant bottle
Furanic dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), made from plants gives you the same possibilities with slightly different (often better) properties for a big range of green building blocks and green polymers. When you polymerize the old TPA with ethylene glycol, with can also be produced as a green building block, the result is the well-known PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which can be blown into bottles. With green ethylene glycol and TPA you obtain a 30% green bottle, but when you polymerise it with green FDCA, the resulting PEF bottle (the F is from furanoalate) is not only 100% green, but also a better product: The ‘green plant bottle’. It is only one example of the numerous possibilities. Teijin is very much interested in making green aramid fibres. Other furanics are easily converted into biofuels and biojetfuels. The news around FDCA gives the impression that the green chemical industry and the production of green chemical materials are well under way.

Companies are standing in line to convert to furanics. In 2011 Avantium raised € 25 million from private investors (and 5 million from the Dutch government) to build a pilot plant for its YXY-technology in Geleen, Limburg which was opened in December 2011. It signed several contracts with companies like Sekisui Chemical Corporation and IPF Energies Nouvelles for the use by both companies of its ‘high throughput research facilities’. With Rodia (Solvay) it will develop green biobased polyamides (nylons). At the end of 2011 the biggest fish was caught when a multi-million research agreement with Coca Cola was announced to develop the next generation 100% plant based plastic PEF bottle.

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