Biome Bioplastics, one of the UK’s leading developers of bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based plastics, has begun a major development program to progress successful bio-based chemicals research through to industrial scale production. The project has the potential to significantly accelerate the global bioplastics market with the production of novel target materials, including a fully bio-based polyester.
The extensive £3m, three-year work program led by Biome has received significant support from Innovate UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), among others. The scale-up work will involve several parallel projects undertaken in partnership with specialist units at the Universities of Warwick, Liverpool and Leeds as well as the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) on Teesside.
The consortium’s aim is to harness industrial biotechnology techniques to produce bio-based chemicals from lignin — an abundant waste product of the pulp and paper industry — at a scale suitable for industrial testing. The availability of these chemicals could revolutionize the bioplastics market. For the first time, it would allow natural polymers to truly compete with oil-based polymers on both cost and functionality. The work could also contribute to a sustainable UK chemicals industry, with broader commercial applications including fragrances, coatings and personal care products.
Biome CEO Paul Mines says: “The ready availability of high-value, sustainable chemicals from natural sources will be a game-changer for the bioplastics market. Success in this work would allow us to competitively challenge the dominance of oil-based polymers. The technology we are developing is part of the growing adoption of bio-based processes that is likely to deliver radical changes across the materials industry.”
Scientists have been trying to valorize lignin for more than 30 years. Last year, Biome and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Industrial Biotechnology and Biorefining successfully demonstrated that bacterial degradation can be used to produce organic chemicals from lignin that are suitable for bioplastic manufacture. In groundbreaking research, the team proved that soil bacteria can be used to manipulate the breakdown pathway and that the process can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology.
Biome’s extensive development program will build on this proven science by increasing yields and scaling up the technology to demonstrate commercial viability and the potential for industrial volumes of production. Larger trials will be undertaken at CPI and demonstration quantities of chemicals will be converted into novel materials for evaluation among Biome’s existing customers.
“Working from bench scale to 10,000 L, our open innovation model enables clients to develop and demonstrate the next generation of products and processes,” explains Steve Pearson, Business and Strategy Manager at CPI. "We are delighted to be working with Biome Bioplastics on this project and hope that together we can successfully scale up the technology to demonstrate commercial viability.”
In addition to converting lignin feedstocks, Biome Bioplastics will also be leading a one-year feasibility study with the University of Liverpool into the possibility of extracting similar organic chemicals from the cellulose portion of lignocellulose, which would broaden the options for raw materials for use in the manufacture of bioplastics to include agricultural waste streams. If successful, this work will be integrated into the ongoing development work towards industrial-scale products.
Industrial biotechnology is recognized by the UK government as a promising means of developing low-carbon products and processes. Biome says the technology it is developing has the potential to unlock a practical biorefinery approach to transforming the millions of tonnes of lignin feedstock that is produced every year into sustainable, high-value chemicals.