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Issue 04/2020

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Highlights: Bottle Applications Beauty and Healthcare Basics: bio-PDO, bio-BDO

On-Site The silent giant

On-Site The silent giant Galactic and Futerro belong to the big players in the field of PLA bioplastics MAGAZINE meeting Frédéric Van Gansberghe While in recent years, little has been heard about Galactic and Futerro, almost a decade ago, these two names created a major stir in the world of PLA. In 2011, they announced the development of an economically viable recycling process for PLA called LOOPLA, in which PLA is chemically recycled back into the monomeric lactic acid. Since then, it has largely gone quiet around these companies. Curious about the developments back then and about what has been happening since, bioplastics MAGAZINE visited Galactic in Escanaffles, Belgium early July 2020, to find out more. “If you want to start from the beginning,” said Frédéric Van Gansberghe, founder and CEO of Galactic, “well, it all started 30 years ago, when bioplastics were not yet a hot topic.” When Frédéric was at university, he started researching the fermentation of sugars to lactic acid, already with the idea of producing PLA at the back of his mind. From lactic acid … In 1994, together with a pioneering team of engineers and shareholders, he acquired a sugar mill in Escanaffles in the south of Belgium, close to the French border. This plant was then converted into a first production unit for lactic acid and lactates with a capacity of 1,500 tonnes. The company was initially named Bioprocess Technology and one of the shareholders was the Belgian sugar producer Groupe Sucrier (Finasucre). In 1997, the company was renamed Galactic. The source material is beet sugar from the area, as well as from France or the Netherlands. “Sugar beet is a very efficient source of carbohydrates, probably the most efficient in the world,” as Frédéric pointed out. … to PLA Even if the main product was, and still is, lactic acid for the food market (meat, bakery, dairy, etc.), for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other markets, and even if lactic acid is the main product to generate revenues, it was always the intention of Frédéric Van Gansberghe to go into PLA. So, the company always had a small research team working on PLA. “The budget was always limited, so it took us a long time,” he said. “But we researched and developed a lot and filed 200 patents.” And finally, in 2007 the decision was made to create Futerro. Galactic and Total Petrochemicals joined forces on the project and the joint venture dedicated to the production of PLA was born. The PLA pilot unit or demo plant, which started up in November 2009, has a capacity of 1,500 tonnes/year and is used to test and improve the technology for producing PLA. About five years later, Galactic bought back the shares in the venture from Total. As a result, Futerro became a wholly owned subsidiary of Galactic. Galactic is a family-owned business – which explains why the company could take the time it needed to develop its PLA technology, financed by the traditional lactic acid business, without the pressure from shareholders to make a profit and deliver a return on investment. Basically, the company is owned by three families: next to that of Frédéric Van Gansberghe, the two other owner families are sugar producer Finasucre and Bois Sauvage. Today, the main focus of Futerro is to license its PLA technology to interested industry partners. The first license was sold to China two years ago. At the same time, Futerro also invested in this project, so that it is now a joint venture. “We wanted to be on board, as this is the first PLA plant we licensed and we want to be sure that we can optimize the process as much as possible,” Frédéric pointed out. This summer, the first step of this 2-step project will be started up. This first step is a 30,000 tonnes/year PLA plant, which will then be complemented by a second unit with a capacity of 50,000 t/a, bringing the total production capacity to an annual 80,000 tonnes. At the same site, Futerro is also setting up a lactic acid production plant, both to serve the PLA plant and the traditional lactic acid markets. The sugar for the plant in China is derived from GMO-free corn. And LOOPLA … In the course of its work on PLA, Galactic also developed the chemical recycling process Loopla. bioplastics MAGAZINE reported for the first time some ten years ago on this technology. 24 bioplastics MAGAZINE [04/20] Vol. 15

new series On-Site The Loopla concept is a patented closed loop technology where the used PLA is recovered and depolymerised back into its monomer lactic acid through hydrolysis. This lactic acid can easily be polymerised again to make new PLA with exactly the same characteristics as the original material. The chemical recycling process requires no harmful chemicals and is optimised to create a minimum CO 2 footprint. However, as Frédéric pointed out, there is no significant secondary material stream today. The Loopla plant in Escanaffles can run at a maximum capacity of 4000 tonnes/ year. “But we are far away from an economically reasonable minimum amount of 500 t/a,” he said. “The problem is, how can we collect enough PLA to run such a plant.” The project in China also includes a Loopla-plant. Here, Futerro expects to put in place various closed loop applications, allowing the PLA to be returned to the plant in sufficiently high amounts. This includes production waste such as sprues, but also end products such as carpets. On Youtube (see link below), the entire process, from sugar - to lactic acid – to PLA – as well as the Loopla chemical recycling process is explained in detail. As an example, the video shows how the red carpet from the Film Festival in Cannes a few years ago, is disposed of. The whole carpet was collected after the event and chemically recycled at the Loopla plant in Escanaffles. “We did the same with cups at big concerts and music festivals,” Frédéric added. “We showed that it was feasible, but the total amounts collected are still not economic.” All from one hand Even though Galactic and Futerro are relatively closemouthed about their activities in this area, they are certainly a significant silent player in the PLA business. “We are now speaking to dozens of interested clients, as we are the only company that can offer the technologies to produce lactic acid and lactides (for traditional markets and for PLA), to produce PLA and to recycle PLA back to the monomer from one hand,” Frédéric emphasized, “and we are indeed open to sell licenses to anyone.” Futerro PLA Pilot plant Loopla chemical recycling plant in Escanaffles | Info See a video-clip at: Frédéric Van Gansberghe and Michael Thielen bioplastics MAGAZINE [04/20] Vol. 15 25

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