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The race to commercially viable bioplastics

The industrial world is working hard to make production chains more sustainable. Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX, knows that large brands such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are putting pressure on their suppliers at the start of the chain. ‘The soft drink giants want to introduce bioplastic bottles, in order to offer consumers a truly sustainable product.’ A vital ingredient of bioplastic products is green benzene, toluene, and xylene (together BTX). Normally these products are made from fossil resources, but to create bioplastics, one TopDutch group are producing them with biomass.

The idea to make benzene, toluene, and xylene out of biomass originated at KNN, a Groningen-based consultancy firm specialized in bio-based production. The bureau then founded BioBTX in 2012, together with chemical industry company Syncom and several researchers from the University of Groningen. After years of testing on a laboratory scale, the technology has now been proven to work and the company opened a demo factory last year. A large, shining installation was constructed in the hall at the Zernike Advanced Processing university campus in Groningen, where BioBTX conducts its experiments. The experimental installation was realized with the help of European funding and investments from the Groningen venture capital fund Carduso Capital. BioBTX was also backed financially by the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe and the municipality of Emmen.

Special ecosystem

BioBTX has previously collaborated with biodiesel manufacturer SunOil and polyester manufacturer Cumapol in Emmen. BioBTX and Cumapol have proven that it is technically possible to make polyester out of the bio-based BTX. ‘Collaboration with local partners, such as SunOil, Cumapol, and Teijin Aramid is important’, says BioBTX Managing Director Pieter Imhof. ‘The more companies that embrace our technology, the more willing the intermediary chemical giants will be to adopt our technology in the future.’

‘The ecosystem of the Northern Netherlands is special’, Imhof - who moved to this region when he became Managing Director at BioBTX in 2017 - thinks. ‘Finding partners is easy. Local entrepreneurs are open-minded and willing to work with you.’ Imhof believes it is quite exceptional that partners do not just think about their own goals, but are willing to work toward a better future for everyone. ‘The province is also interested in green initiatives. All of this makes it interesting for our company to scale up our technology in the Northern Netherlands’, Imhof says.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

Becoming the first

The potential is great: BTX’s potential market consists of hundreds of millions of tons. But time is of the essence because the competition is catching up. Imhof even calls it a race. ‘Several technology companies are experimenting with green BTX. The first company that manages to create BTX from biomass on an industrial scale will have a huge lead.’ According to Imhof, Groningen-based BioBTX has a good chance of winning. Collaboration with local partners is the key to success, and the company can count on the knowledge from researchers at the University of Groningen. The companies at the chemical industrial cluster are also interested in accelerating innovation. For example, plastic fiber manufacturer Teijin Aramid will be collaborating with BioBTX to research how they can make the production of their Twaron fiber more environmentally friendly by using bio-aromatics as a chemical resource.

Finding partners is easy. Local entrepreneurs are open-minded and willing to work with you.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

Earlier this year, BioBTX made a major further step to becoming the first commercially viable BTX plant. They attracted 5 investors – three existing plus new co-financing from the Groeifonds of the Economic Board Groningen and the Northern Netherlands’ Investment and Development agency (NOM). This round of funding will be used to complete ‘groundwork’ such as the further optimization of processes, technologies and products, and market studies, that is needed to prepare for a Series C investment later in the year.

All of this is being done with the goal of having an operational commercial plant running by 2023. ‘We know it’s ambitious. But we believe it is absolutely feasible, especially now we have the financial strength to prepare everything in detail,’ says Imhof.

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