As the world population increases - the UN predicts a rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 - it becomes more important to look for alternatives to widely used products derived from the finite resources of fossil fuels. A pilot plant established in Decatur, Illinois, by DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for the production of the molecule furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME), represents a step towards that goal. FDME is manufactured from fructose derived from corn starch and can be used to create materials that have the potential to replace everyday plastics made from oil or natural gas, including beverage packaging. It's a highly efficient process, with all manufacturing steps taking place within the same facility.
One of the uses of FDME is as a building block for the production of a novel polyester, polytrimethylene furandicarboxyate (PTF). This new material has significant implications for the beverage packaging industry. PTF boasts a carbon dioxide barrier up to 15 times more effective than that of PET alone, making it ideally suited for the packaging of carbonated beverages. The enhanced gas barrier has the potential to provide longer shelf life, which offers benefits for supply chain efficiency and reaching emerging markets. It may also lead to thinner, smarter plastic packaging, allowing greater choice in shape and size, and reducing the financial and environmental costs of transportation. "You're going to be able to ship products around the world with thinner bottles - up to 25% lighter - and still maintain the beverage's desired carbonation level," Laurie Kronenberg, global marketing director at DuPont, explains.
The plant's opening is part of a strategy to create and market bio-based products. "We believe that bringing materials to market that meet three basic requirements - performance, sustainability and accessibility - will bring us closer to achieving a circular economy, where waste is captured and reused, and sustainable products are available to our growing population by using renewable source materials," Kronenberg says.
FDME delivers in all three areas: the performance of materials such as PTF enable high-performing products; its plant-based source makes it annually renewable; and the manufacturing process is efficient. "If you think of what ADM and DuPont have done together, it's not only the fact that we can bring this to market, it's that we've created a process that has higher yields and lower operating costs," Kronenberg says.
The production of FDME offers possibilities for sustainable materials that range far beyond beverage packaging. "We're actually planning on doing a whole family of furan-based polymers," Kronenberg explains. "Right now, our focus is on packaging, but this could also be used in textiles, engineering plastics and many different industries that are going to enable us to have products that, in a consumer's everyday life, will be more durable, consumer-friendly and renewable."
Kronenberg emphasises that manufacturers will move towards a circular economy by producing sustainable products that can outpace their fossil fuel-derived predecessors. She notes that DuPont is already a leader in this endeavour, pointing to their commercialisation of bio-based products, such as the building block Bio-PDO that is also used in the manufacture of PTF and the renewably sourced Sorona fibres. "Consumers today are actively seeking these sorts of solutions," she says. "DuPont's sustainable products offer exceptional performance that meets the needs of customers in the beverage packaging market, so manufacturers can improve the environmental performance of their own products without compromising on functionality."