Industrial biotechnology and bio-based routes to sustainable composite materials

Posted on: 31/10/2018

A new KTN report highlights opportunities for industrial biotechnology to provide disruptive solutions for sustainable composite materials.

There is an opportunity to grow the UK’s composite product market from ¬£2.3 billion to ¬£12 billion by 2030, but there is also a need to incorporate circular economy principles alongside the rapid development of composite materials.

Composites materials can reduce environmental impact through light-weighting and durability, but there is a need to develop cost-effective bio-based raw materials to further reduce environmental impact and de-couple prices from traditional fossil-based materials. Whilst some polymers and chemical feedstocks have traditionally been produced economically from bio-based resources (e.g. rubbers), in general bio-based feedstocks are not currently considered economical compared to petrochemical-derived equivalents.

A new KTN report examines how industrial biotechnology (IB) and biocomposites could provide disruptive solutions to the sustainability and recyclability aspects of composite materials and new pathways to precursors and resins.

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The report provides insight on the UK players and supply chain, identifies areas where the UK takes a leading position, highlights specific technological challenges and flags up funding needs as well as including recommendations for how Innovate UK can support this opportunity.

Key stakeholders from both the technology providers (IB) and materials producers, and from both academia and industry, were able to contribute to this report via two workshops (26th February 2018 in¬†York and 28th March 2018 in¬†Manchester), helping to develop a “technology needs and gap” perspective.

Key Challenges

The report identified five key challenges and developments which will make bio-based composite materials economically competitive with oil-based materials:

  1. The development of platform molecules (bio-derived building blocks) as alternatives to fossil-derived base chemicals provides an opportunity to capitalise on the inherent oxygen content and chirality of various biomass resources, which should not be dismissed as synthetically chirality is difficult to achieve.
  2. The maximum impact is likely to be realised in the development cost-effective processes for obtaining aromatic compounds, or effective alternatives from biomass sources such as alternatives to styrene, maleic anhydride and phthalic anhydride. Developing Furanic monomers offers an alternative to Phenolics.
  3. Understanding the coupling of bio-based polymers with new bio-based monomers will be key to future success in materials development and manufacturing at scale with the required cure temperatures and times.
  4. There is an opportunity to add value to UK composite materials sector by developing areas where bio-based materials can add value in terms of the materials properties or health and safety.
  5. Mapping the industry end user material properties to potential sustainable feedstocks including an understanding of the scale required is essential to recovering high value chemicals at required scale from bio-sources (Lignin) through catalysis and developing bio-based composite materials.

Key Recommendations

The report also put forward four key recommendations:

  1. Investment in the development of sustainable composite materials now is essential in delivering UK growth through the multi-sector market growth opportunity of composites set out in the CLF 2016 strategy. Dedicated funding to kick start the currently limited collaborations between the IB and composites sectors.
  2. The chemical diversity in platform molecules (bio-derived building blocks) brings challenges, but also opportunities for innovation and new Intellectual Property. Disseminate the opportunities in the UK BioChem 10 list (top bio-based chemicals for the UK: Challenges and Opportunities) to Chemistry and Composite Materials Sectors.
  3. Incorporate circular economy principles alongside rapid development of composite materials. Develop best practice in design. Design for repair and end of life (circular economy), Bio/recycled content and environmental impact (LCA) need to be integral to design process. Develop capability in life cycle assessment and costing to show the benefits of composites.
  4. Sustainable residue (waste) collection include smart tracking to enable valorisation of waste streams. To accelerate commercially viable recycling, the composites and Chemistry and IB sectors must work with the waste management industry. Enabling development of markets for recyclates with associated standards and support creation of Glass Reinforced Polymer (GRP) recycling supply chain.

The report concludes that investment in the development of sustainable composite materials now is essential in delivering UK growth through the multi-sector application of composites.

You can download the full report here.

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