Last year, we published an interview with Tom van Aken, CEO of Avantium, about the environmental benefits of the plant-based polymer Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF). Victoria Hattersley recently caught up with him to find out where we are now with this much-discussed – and potentially game-changing? – material.

VH: First, could you please give me an update of where we are now with PEF: given the recent slew of offtake contracts Avantium has announced, how far is this material from full commercialization?

TvA: We are getting very close to that exciting point in time where PEF is produced on a commercial scale and will start to appear in consumer products. The recent offtake agreements represent a significant commercial milestone for our FDCA flagship plant, which will produce PEF. With the signing of Toyobo, Refresco, Terphane, Resilux, and an undisclosed major food and beverage supplier, we now have commitments for over 50% of the plant’s outputs. Subject to a positive financial investment decision (FID), we plan to open the plant in 2023 and begin introducing PEF to the market.

VH: From a few conversations I have had, it seems to me there is a perception in some – although by no means all – quarters, that the commercialization of PEF has ‘stalled’ in recent times. Is there any truth to this? How would you address such claims?

TvA: We have been in a joint venture with BASF for the commercialization of PEF, which didn’t work out as we had planned and was terminated in 2019. Since that time, we have made excellent progress to work on a new commercialization plan that is under our own control. Despite some temporary delays due to the pandemic, we believe the time is excellent to bring such a new packaging solution to the market. Consumers expect that new materials contribute to lower CO2 emissions and can help to solve the plastic waste crisis, and PEF fits well into the requirements of climate-friendly and circular solutions.

VH: Can PEF effectively be a ‘drop-in’ substitute for PET, or is it a little more complicated than that?

TvA: We believe that PEF is the plastic material of the future and aim for broad adoption in the long term. PEF is superior to PET in both sustainability and performance properties. With lower gas permeability towards carbon dioxide (CO2), oxygen (O2), and humidity, PEF can preserve the integrity and quality of the product within the packaging for longer periods of time, reducing food waste and extending functional shelf life. PEF is also stronger, which enables thinner or light-weighted packaging solutions. PEF can be processed in existing recycling streams.

With similar chemical properties to PET, both can even be recycled together up to a certain percentage. PEF is compatible with PET mechanical recycling assets, and when processed as part of the PET recycling stream, it has been proven that PEF has a much lower environmental impact than other barrier materials on haze and other properties of the resulting recycled PET material. This is also important in multilayer PET bottles, in which PEF can be used as a barrier material, leading to improved sustainability and recyclability compared to multilayer bottles with other barrier materials such as nylon. More importantly, PEF products can also be recycled entirely by themselves in a closed-loop system.  In addition to this, PEF breaks down much quicker than PET if it ends up in nature, be that unintentionally or not.

However, we recognize that introducing new technologies to the market will take time and will initially be at a higher cost than what’s already out there. So, for now, we’re focusing on applications that do not directly compete with PET, or where PET may not be the optimal material of choice, such as high barrier films and speciality bottles. When PEF is produced at mass scale, its costs will come down in order to compete with conventional packaging materials.

VH: What are the main applications you envisage for PEF initially, and can we expect these to be extended as it achieves further market penetration?

TvA: We’re targeting high-value applications varying from monolayer and multilayer bottles, to polyester film products for food and beverage packaging. As we continue negotiations with potential partners across the PEF value chain for additional offtakes and proceed with commercialization, we’ll look to expand the applications.

VH: It’s been said that PEF has not yet been established on the market because of its time- and energy-intensive production. Does this still hold true, and if not, can you explain how production methods have evolved?

TvA: With any new technology, it takes time for research and development to ensure that the product is fit for purpose. As for the energy required for production, one of our core aims at Avantium is to ensure that our technologies are sustainable and have minimal impact on the environment. This has to be backed by facts and rigorous and certified assessments by independent institutes. We do this by conducting Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) across our technologies to assess their environmental impact and confirm that the production of these technologies has a significantly lower carbon footprint compared with the market incumbents. Avantium has conducted a Global Warming Potential GWP evaluation of the PEF process in collaboration with the Copernicus Institute at the University of Utrecht in 2012, demonstrating that PEF has a 50-70% lower carbon footprint. An LCA on our PEF technology, conducted with Nova Institute, ran in 2020 and is currently undergoing ISO certification.

VH: Last year we spoke about some of the challenges faced when it comes to the adoption of new production models in terms of regulations, sourcing the necessary quantities of feedstocks, its inability to compete financially with other polymers, and so on. What progress has been made in addressing such challenges?

TvA: To ensure that we have the necessary quantities of plant-based feedstocks for our technologies, it is vital that land-use practices are sustainable to increase yields, mitigate the effects of climate change, and support farmers. Therefore, we aim to ensure the integrity of our feedstocks by only partnering with suppliers that actively engage in sustainable practices, adopt independently certified sustainable standards of feedback (or create our own where needed), as well as look to incorporate sustainable sourcing requirements into the license agreements of our renewable technologies. This will ensure that as our technologies are deployed, they will be a beacon for not only renewable chemistry but also for promoting sustainable sourcing of plant-based materials.

To keep up with conventional packaging materials, we must reach a much higher production scale and so at the size we currently are we simply can’t achieve the commodity volume that is necessary to compete with existing solutions on a price basis. For this reason, we have decided to license our FDCA and PEF technology instead, which will make it possible to get to a larger production scale much faster than if we were to do it on our own. Aside from being the most capital-efficient way to commercialize our technologies, we believe it is also the fastest way to bring our sustainable solutions to market and to achieve the economies of scale to enable mass adoption to PEF.