By Thomas Kläusli, Chief Marketing Officer, AVA Biochem
The evolution of biorefineries has driven the development of bio-based chemicals as an alternative to petrochemicals. Due to increasing public concerns around health, the environment and limited fossil resources, there is a growing interest in using sustainable technologies to produce chemicals, plastics and other products from renewable resources. Furthermore, new production processes for bio-based chemicals, such as 5-HMF, offer new, promising pathways for a wide range of applications.
Understandably, there is a lot of excitement around bio-based platform chemicals. Platform chemicals are building blocks which can be converted to a wide range of chemicals or materials. When made from renewable raw materials, bio-based platform chemicals offer great potential for decarbonising everyday products, allowing everything from running shoe soles to plastics and car parts to be made bio-based.
5-hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF) is a promising renewable platform chemical made by Swiss company AVA Biochem. 5-HMF has applications in a wide range of sectors, including chemicals, plastics, food, pharma and automotive, due to its functionality and stability. The chemical is currently being used in the research and development of innovative new materials.
Future bulk production of 5-HMF, made possible by the new production process developed by AVA Biochem, will allow for production of a range of bio-based products such as biopolymers, resins, coatings, paints, varnishes, artificial fibers and special additives. Recently, AVA Biochem began commercial production at its Biochem-1 facility in Muttenz, Switzerland.
As a renewable platform chemical, 5-HMF’s potential is vast. It is the basis of 175 downstream chemical substances.
There are two functional, reactive groups in 5-HMF, the hydroxyl group and formyl group. The furan ring itself is also a reactive structure. Thanks to these features, 5-HMF is able to undergo reduction, oxidation, esterification and many other reactions. These possible reactions contribute to 5-HMF’s versatile derivatives and applications.
The bio-based polymers market is probably the largest and most interesting market for 5-HMF today. Packaging, fibers and bottling are some of the application segments driving the demand for bioplastics and the biopolymers market is expected to be almost 1.5 million tonnes by 2018. Packaging, the biggest application for biopolymers, is predicted to be worth €1.2 billion by 2018.
Oxidising 5-HMF produces other interesting platform chemicals such as 2,5 furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA). FDCA is used as the basis for polymers and can replace terephthalic acid in polyester, especially polyethylene terephthalate (PET). 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylate (mumefural, MF) is considered to be a potential anti-influenza chemical. Another compound, 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) is one of the most valuable derivatives of levulinic acid and a commonly-used photosensitizing drug in photodynamic therapy for skin cancer treatment.
On top of this, 5-ALA is not only a useful insecticide, but also a promising biodegradable herbicide. Finally, reduction of 5-HMF’s formyl group results in 2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)furan, which is an important building block for the production of polymers and polyurethane foams. These few examples show how versatile 5-HMF is.
5-HMF can only be made from biomass and is not available from petro-based sources. Created through the dehydration of fructose, 5-HMF production used to be lengthy and highly manual. For the first time, 5-HMF is now being produced commercially by AVA Biochem, using a modified hydrothermal carbonisation (HTC) process, initially developed by its parent company AVA-CO2 to turn biomass waste into energy.
Currently, AVA Biochem is making 5-HMF with fructose sourced in Europe. However, the modified HTC technology will also allow for the use of different biomass streams in the future. The biggest advantage of the new process is that it allows for easy scale-up and possible bulk production of 5-HMF in the near future. AVA Biochem is currently in discussion with industry partners, with the objective of building large-scale 5-HMF facilities worldwide in order to supply industry with enough 5-HMF to enable the production of innovative bio-based products.
With brand owners from many sectors looking to increase the renewable percentage of their products, companies in the bio-based sector are working hard to facilitate the decarbonisation of society through green chemicals. Bio-based chemicals are becoming increasingly cost-competitive and their markets are growing.
Full-scale realisation of the bioeconomy will take time and continued investment. Advances such as the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into sugars and the formation of key platform molecules are driving growth.
If the industry can ensure performance, delivery, competitive pricing and quality, the renewable chemical sector can take bio-based chemicals into the mainstream. Application development is key, as is raising awareness of the benefits of bio, something which all players involved in the bioeconomy need to take responsibility for.
Nevertheless, with the bioeconomy being touted as a second industrial revolution, the future of versatile bio-based platform chemicals like 5-HMF looks bright.
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