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Issue 01/2023

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Highlights: Toys Automotive Basics: Amorphous PHA Digital product passports

on-site The LEGO Technic

on-site The LEGO Technic Master of bioplastics B4Plastics creates novel biopolymers from a huge toolbox of building blocks By:Michael Thielen B 4Plastics is a Polymer Architecture company, catalysing the introduction of novel biomaterials, and growing them from niche to bulk applications. “Just as an architect creates your dream home, B4Plastics creates your dream plastic”, as the website says. B4Plastics designs and scales the materials to give applications the best balance between function, ecology, and cost. bioplastics MAGAZINE visited B4Plastics in Lanklaar, Belgium, not far from Maastricht in the Netherlands and spoke to founder and director Stefaan De Wildeman. With Stefaan’s background as a bioengineer, who studied organic chemistry and microbiology, he started his career at DSM about 20 years ago. After 11 years he found himself in the R&D department doing a lot of biocatalysis: “that is the merging of organic chemistry and enzymes at work”, as Stefaan put it. Most of the research was on fine chemicals and pharmaceutical ingredients. Some day in 2008 he had the idea of combining all his knowledge about chemicals and microbes to create novel materials. This was perfectly in line with DSM’s approach into bioplastics. One of the cash cows was caprolactam for PA6 in those days. “That was when I got ‘infected’ by the thought that I could use my knowledge of my PhD education about fermentation pathways towards new building blocks and use those building blocks in novel backbones and create new polymers”, Stefaan explained. And even if he got a lot of freedom in the labs of DSM, it was a kind of a restless business, as all developments should turn into big business in the next two or three years. Reality decided differently, as we all know: even one decade later, bioplastics only fill some percentage of the whole plastics industry. When the bioplastics ambitions of DSM tipped their max and then gradually mitigated to a few core projects, Stefaan had to make a choice: “Will I follow the company or my own infection?” Following his infection, he got attracted by Maastricht University to create a master’s programme and do research in the field of biobased materials. With his head overloaded with ideas, a lab, a handful of students, and the necessary academic freedom “life was good”, Stefaan smiled. “Now, think about: what if we find something and see the need to upscale? How can we bring kilogrammes to tonnes?” That was the beginning of B4Plastics as this was something – universities are great for experimenting and developing the new, however, they are not really set up for scale-up. B4Plastics was founded to become the most accurate and fastest developer and scaler of totally novel biomaterials. Potential customers who want to implement a certain application with a bioplastic material often realise that there is no bioplastic material available fulfilling their needs. This is when B4Plastics investigates which biobased building blocks from their toolbox could be assembled to create a material that would solve this task. “I was a LEGO Technic nerd when I was about 10 years old”, Stefaan told us. “And if you imagine how many Lego building blocks can be assembled to how many different models, be it a crane, a house, or a pirate ship – you can imagine what I mean”. And of course, from those many biobased (biochemical) building blocks, millions of different polymers could potentially be created. So the mission of B4Plastics became to find out, which of these millions of polymers make sense and have the potential to grow sufficiently and economically to fill market niches. Thoughtful gambling – guaranteed winning. Founded in 2015 as an “empty company”, Stefaan started to apply for subsidy projects to scale up the company. With two approved projects, a Belgian one and one from the European Union, in 2018 Stefaan returned his professorship mandate back to the University and B4Plastics started its activities as a one-man company. Now, five years later, about 25 people are working in the Lanklaar plant. “And this is also the point in time, where we left the so-called roller coaster phase”, Stefaan explained with some after-dizziness. With about EUR 10 million of non-dilutive grants and awards, the company is currently growing on solid grounds. 48 bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18

on-site “2023 is the year of our first scale-ups”, Stefaan proclaimed with a proud twinkle in his eyes. B4Plastics will be commissioning two own invested plants with a capacity of 10,000 tonnes on a property just across the street from the current company building. A total of about 100 employees will find a job in these two new plants. One of the most bespoken awards for example is the 2021 Food Planet Prize for the development towards the world’s first biodegradable fishing nets [1]. So, what is B4Plastics today? B4Plastics stands for “Biobased Building Blocks for Plastics”. So, the products of B4Plastics are customized polymeric materials. And Stefaan came back to LEGO: “In the LEGO Masters Challenge, you get the task to build a certain object from the existing building blocks, for example, a dream castle in the air, a mythical creature in a living pose, or a detailed department store. And similarly, we get the tasks to create new biopolymers with certain properties, such as a particularly fast degrading PLA grade or a biodegradable material with rubbery properties”. Twelve scientific professionals (which is about 50 % of the current staff at B4Plastics) evaluate the set of required properties and create novel polymeric backbones to be connected to the applications in the market. “And interestingly, increasingly brand owners come directly to us and ask us. Historically a brand owner would go to an OEM, who then goes to a polymer supplier and so on. So, in a way, this is a disruption of the established value chain”, Stefaan said. The usual stages of development comprise the screen phase, where in lab scale quantities up to one kilogram are developed and produced. If the novel polymer meets the requirements the next stage is the scale phase that goes up to 10 or 25 kg, sometimes even 500 kg. Then a scale-up to industrial production follows. Info See a video-clip at: b4plastics “By the middle of this year we will be able to accept orders in the 100 tonnes range”, Stefaan pointed out. If more material would be needed in future, B4Plastics would do further scaleups decentralized in countries or areas where the materials would be needed, as it doesn’t make much ecologic sense to ship materials over long distances – a major issue Stefaan has with the current system he tries to disrupt and improve. The first two plants are dedicated to two of the frontrunning products that have a bit of a multipurpose character: FORTAN ® and RUBRAN ® . The first is a very strong biodegradable material to replace non-degradable polyamides for applications such as gear wheels, lawn trimmer lines, or fishing nets. Rubran is a biodegradable rubbery material, for instance for shoe soles. Currently, the company is securing first supply agreements with the first customers for these products and starts licensing deals with parties that can leverage the impact far beyond 10.000 tonnes per year in the short run. The materials can also be slightly modified so that they give rise to a product platform of these two materials. Actually, 75 % of the projects B4Plastics is currently handling require an added value from improved end-of-life conditions such as recycling or biodegradation, the latter for example for wear and tear reasons. Are all products biobased and biodegradable? “It’s kind of a menu card”, Stefaan responded. “Of course, there are customers that want it all. 100 % biobased, but not from resources that can also be used for food and feed – preferably from waste streams, recyclable – maybe even biodegradable under certain conditions … and cheap. However, sometimes, depending on the application, you have to make compromises”. Conclusions B4Plastics is another sleeping giant that has been under the radar for a long time. “Our philosophy is first do something – then talk about it”, as Stefaan put it. Among the many projects of B4Plastics, we see topics such as vegan leather, very fast degrading polymers, enzymes to build and degrade polymeric backbones, or new non-isocyanate polyurethanes and nontoxic polycarbonates from biorefineries, to name just a few. Stay tuned. bioplastics MAGAZINE will keep you updated. [1] bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18 49

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