Carnegie Hall sits on the corner of 7th Ave. and 56th St. in Manhattan. How does one get there? Well, as the old adage goes, practice. (The Chemical Notebook took X1 express bus from Staten Island.) Nothing quite says “making it” in music like playing Carnegie Hall for the first time.
Something similar happened yesterday, only a couple of blocks away, at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. Three startup firms held a joint press conference with the biggest brand name of them call, The Coca Cola Company, to announce a collaboration in what has become one of the biggest challenges of the plastics industry: a wholly renewable polyethylene terephthalate bottle. The three firms were Gevo, Virent, and Avantium. (I’m abusing the term “startup” a little bit by lumping Avantium in because, as chemists know, Avantium is a well-established name in high-throughput screening.)
Coca-Cola has had a PlantBottle on the market since 2009. The bottle is made from polyethylene terephthalate, but it is a different kind of PET. PET is made via the condensation of ethylene glycol with purified terephthalic acid. The PET in the plant bottle uses bio-based ethylene glycol (EG) instead of petrochemical-based EG. As a result, the plant bottle is 30% renewable.
Not to denigrate the PlantBottle, but the chemistry to get to bio-EG is straight forward: dehydrate ethanol to get ethylene and then convert ethylene into EO/EG via conventional routes.
The other 70% to go to a 100% bottle is a different matter altogether. Making PTA–or its common petrochemical precursor, paraxylene, hasn’t yielded to biology too easily. These are far more complex molecules. More work needs to be done before such a route can be commercially viable: Hence, yesterday’s event.
“We understand we can’t do it alone,” noted Rick Frazier, Coke’s VP of commercial market supply. “We need to work with partners.” He said Coke vetted about 30 companies with possible solutions. The three firms he shared the dais with were the ones that made the cut.
The three companies have very different routes to bio-based PET.
Virent has a catalytic process to turn sugars in a range of hydrocarbons, including PX.
Gevo ferments sugar into isobutanol, which after subsequent chemical reactions, is transformed into PX. Its technology is easily retrofitted into existing ethanol plants. Cheap ethanol plants are plentiful.
Avantium is the oddball of the bunch. It uses a catalytic process to turn sugar into furan dicarboxylic acid. This is condensed with ethylene glycol to make polyethylene furanoate. This is a polyester that, according to the Avantium, exceeds PET in terms of oxygen barrier and temperature performance. The polymer might seem like a natural for hot fill containers or beer. I suspect that if the collaboration is successful, we’ll see Avantium’s polymer in juice bottles or smaller soda bottles.
At the conference, The Chemical Notebook noted, in a question, that the collaboration felt like a competition. The Chemical Notebook is kind of a jerk and wanted to see the firms start sniping at each other. Conflict makes for a better story.
They were all very civil. Each of the company executives noted that the PET market was plenty big for all of them and that working with Coke was quite the coup, no matter how you look at it. “We are all the winners,” said Virent CEO Lee Edwards. “We are all here with the Coca Cola Company.” Frazier noted the company was also looking for a diversity of supply of bio-based PET.
That’s all very true. The market for PET in North America alone is roughly 10 billion lb. By the time these firms start knocking heads—perhaps a decade from now–bio-PET will be a commodity (even RC will use it) and no one will care anymore.
The conference was a little thin on details. For instance, I wanted to know more about the financial underpinnings. Was Coke taking equity stakes in the companies? Were there milestone payments? Other than assurances that Coke was putting its money where its mouth is, we got none of that. (I’ll watch Gevo’s SEC filings in case there’s a mention.)
Reporters wanted to hear more about its future ethylene glycol plans. We were told to stay tuned. I was curious about the polypropylene caps and labels. That’s a goal, Frazier said, but not a near-term one.
The time line for the bottles isn’t clear. For now, Coke is saying it wants all of its packaging to be renewable by 2020. Frazier mentioned 2015 as a date for a possible rollout, but he wouldn’t commit to it.
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