As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the synthetic fibres that the textile industry will be dealing with in the coming years are poised to be radically different to the polyesters and nylons of today.
In effect, it looks like most of them won’t be synthetic at all, but comprised of chemicals based entirely on biomass, making them rather confusingly 100% non-synthetic synthetics!
And it will be Coca Cola, of all companies, that will be credited with kick-starting this major sea-change in the textile industry.
Let me explain.
Polyester is a synthetic polymer generally made of two components – PTA (roughly 70%) and MEG (30%).
It’s the successful substitution of synthetic MEG with a bio-based replacement that has been the initial success story for Coca Cola in the drive to replace its PET bottles with renewable alternatives.
In its PlantBottle programme, Coca Cola sourced commercially-available bioethanol based on sugarcane from the chemicals producer Braskem in Brazil and had it converted into a ‘bio-based MEG’.
Very importantly, this could be used in Coca Cola’s existing plastic production plants without having to make any significant new technology investments.
This fact, more than anything, is what galvanised a number of the biggest corporations in the world – including automotive leader Ford, sportswear giant Nike and the world’s biggest customer for nonwovens fabrics, Procter & Gamble – into action.
They are all now part of a consortium looking to rapidly escalate the use of what’s being called ‘Bio PET 30’.
In the past few weeks, Ford has applied Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle technology for the first time beyond PET packaging as part of the interior fabric of a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in vehicle.
This showcases PlantBottle technology for seat cushions, seat backs, head restraints, door panel inserts and headliners, all of which contain these 30% plant-based materials.
Since 2009, Coca-Cola has now produced more than 18 billion PlantBottles and distributed them in 28 countries, already resulting in more than 400,000 barrels of oil saved.
If PlantBottle interior fabrics were migrated across the majority of US Ford models, it’s been estimated a further 6,000 barrels of oil would be saved.
And when applied to the annual 58.6 million tons of manmade fibres produced – 43.3 million of which were polyester in 2012 – the potential is simply astronomical.
And remember we’re only talking about replacing 30% of the oil-derived content with bio-based alternatives so far.
There are of course, bio-based fibres on the market, not least cotton, which still accounts for 31% of all fibres produced globally and remains the number one choice for apparel fabrics. But as the global demand for all fibres grow, it will become increasingly expensive. This is without bringing into the equation the demands it makes on arable land.
There is linen, flax, hemp and other natural fibres too, and also advanced cellulosics like the 150,000 tons of Tencel that Lenzing in Austria is now producing, with plans to double capacity within five years.
Then there’s the biopolymer PLA, the largest producer of this being NatureWorks, with an annual capacity of 140,000 tons.
But Tencel and PLA can’t possibly grow fast enough to be anything other than a small, if increasingly significant, parts of the overall fibres industry, since every new expansion requires significant new investment.
These new drop-ins biopolymers, on the other hand, have the potential to make no demands at all on upstream fibre and textile manufacturers.
In another very significant announcement in November, M&G Chemicals of Italy has said it will invest $500,000 in a Chinese joint venture, to make an additional million annual tons of bioethanol available by as early as 2016.
As the key ingredient of BioPET 30, the supply of bioethanol is currently somewhat monopolised by Brazil’s Braskem.
“This is the first act of a green revolution which is coming to the polyester chain to provide environmental sustainability to both PET beverage packaging and polyester textiles,” said M&G Chemicals CEO Marco Ghisolfi. “The timing is significant, not least since Coca Cola plans to use PlantBottle packaging for all of its PET plastic bottles across the globe as early as 2020.”
Bio PET 100
But as I’ve already mentioned, all of this activity, is so far directed at achieving both PET fibres and plastics that are still only 30% bio-based.
What of the other 70%, i.e., the PTA component, that would allow the production of Bio PET 100?
Bio-based PTA is the aim of a number of ambitious start-up companies, primarily in the USA, such as Gevo, which is working with both Coca-Cola and the major fibre producer, Japan’s Toray Industries.
Toray has supplied assistance for the construction of a new demonstration-scale plant in Texas following the successful production of fully renewable and recyclable PET fibres and films at laboratory scale.
Toray and Gevo have developed renewable paraxylene from isobutanol which has been converted into bio-based PTA along with commercially-available bioMEG, to already reach that Bio PET 100 goal, at least on a small scale.
Virent is another company with the backing of Coca Cola which is also making its paraxylene for bioMEG from 100% renewable plant sugars, through a patented, catalytic process.
A third Coca Cola partner is Holland’s Avantium, which has just successfully demonstrated that its PEF – polyethylene furanoate – can be successfully turned into fibres for textiles industries.
At the Institute of Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, PEF bottles have just been processed into 100% bio-based T-shirts using conventional polyester processing technology and equipment.
“These first PEF T-shirts are yet another important step in the development and commercialisation of PEF as a 100% bio-based and recyclable material,” says Avantium CEO Tom van Aken. “The production of the first PEF T-shirts produced from recycled bottles adds apparel and sportswear to the many potential outlets.”
California-based Micromidas is yet another company looking to replace PTA with a bio-based alternative, and has developed a chemical process technology to make a variety of commodity chemicals from cellulosic biomass and ethylene sourced from waste products. Unlike other processes, Micromidas stresses that its route foregoes fermentation. And while most bioplastics typically initially involve converting biomass to sugar before continuing the chemical conversion, Micromidas is able to skip that step
The company has filed over 16 patents on the technology and has raised $25 million in equity capital to date.
Cloud on the horizon
But there is one cloud on the horizon here – the rush to bioenergy.
Environmental groups are already questioning what implications this will have on land use in the longer term, and according to Michael Carus, who managing director of the Germany natural fibres organisation Nova Institute, the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in particular, is hindering the development of materials use and consequently the entire creation of a bio-based European economy.
“The EU’s bioenergy and biofuel policy, as embodied in the objectives fixed by RED, leads to the systematic allocation of biomass to energy to the disadvantage of material use,” he said. “RED has triggered the development of national action plans and support systems for bioenergy and biofuels and this in turn has driven up biomass prices and agricultural leases, making it far more difficult for other sectors to get their hands on biomass and distorting prices.
“The ‘misallocation of biomass’ is the right phrase here, since this is blocking higher value material uses like chemicals and plastics and fibres from coming to fruition.”
Is this a question of history repeating itself?
Over the years the synthetic fibres industry has been suggesting that many more products should be first made from oil rather just being burned as fuel for vehicles and energy.
Surely lessons will be drawn from this in respect of the bioeconomy?
Whatever the outcome, those involved at all levels of the textile chain need to be watching these developments very closely.