Could Liquid Light’s technology be the answer to Coca-Cola’s 2020 PlantBottle aspirations? Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle - Arhive

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Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle 

Editor’s Comment

Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle
Could Liquid Light’s technology be the answer to Coca-Cola’s 2020 PlantBottle aspirations?

Converting lead into gold

Turning something of relatively low value into something of high value has been every alchemist’s dream for hundreds of years. But while it has proved impossible to turn lead into gold, alchemists of the polymer world have been arguably more successful when it comes to turning a little to a lot.Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle 

Indeed, scientists have tried to harness carbon dioxide technology for decades in a bid to convert one of global warming’s chief culprits into useful chemicals.

Since its foundation in 2009, US-based Liquid Light is one company that has worked hard on the science with the heart of its so-called ‘magic’ being a small reaction cell that creates ethylene glycol, among other chemicals, from low-cost, globally-abundant carbon dioxide. This can then be used to make PET water bottles.

Thus, the recent acquisition of the company’s assets by Dutch chemical technology firm Avantium makes particularly interesting reading given that Liquid Light is the first company to have developed a catalyst (a combination of water, sunlight, electricity and other chemicals) to make other chemicals from carbon dioxide.

Regular readers of Plastics in Packaging will know the name Avantium well, as it frequently appears in news relating to bioplastics. In fact, the two companies have history, as both were involved on the Coca-Cola PlantBottle project, with Liquid Light coming on board for a technology agreement signed in 2015, just after the beverage giant launched its first PET bottle made entirely from plant-based materials.

While Avantium specialised in the development of FDCA for polyethylene furanoate (PEF), Liquid Light’s focus was on the production of ethylene glycol from carbon dioxide to further augment Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle packaging programme.

And in my opinion, this is where it gets interesting. Coca-Cola had already developed a 100 per cent bio-based PET by the time of the Liquid Light agreement, but probably realised that converting all of its petroleum-derived PET bottles into PlantBottle by 2020 would be impossible at cost-parity unless it found a lower cost alternative to the ethanol to MEG route used to produce the bio-MEG Coca-Cola uses today.

If Liquid Light’s cost claims are achievable with this technology for bio-MEG, it could signify a major breakthrough in the production of PET from sustainable sources. Essentially, instead of turning sugar-based ethanol into ethylene by using dehydration, and then converting to ethylene oxide and eventually ethylene glycol, Liquid Light says that it reduces the number of steps to make ethylene glycol, reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere (that’s a double win on the carbon front then!).

It also highlights the significant potential of what Liquid Light can offer the industry, and what attracted Avantium to a company that had, since the deal in mid-2015, gone off of the radar somewhat.

Interestingly, one of Liquid Light’s co-founders, Emily Cole, departed in 2015 to pastures new (still in a carbon-related science field) and the company secured debt financing of $2.57m in the same year. But perhaps more pertinent in terms of Liquid Light’s relative silence in the plastics world since 2015 was the fact that oil prices were at such a low level, that bio-based plastics alternatives faced greater challenges than ever in attracting interest.

With oil prices now rising again, Avantium possibly senses a real opportunity for what Liquid Light can offer the world, and perhaps at an attractive price in the current environment. In addition, it is on the record that Liquid Light is hoping to scale up its conversion process with a plant in North America to market ethylene glycol during 2017.

Although I am talking, understandably, about the potential for MEG production, which in itself is a $27 billion market, Liquid Light’s technology can be used to produce more than 60 chemicals.Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle 

It has been a busy few months for Avantium, which was spun off from Royal Dutch Shell in 2000, with the company confirming last October that it is setting up a joint venture and building a facility with BASF. The facility will produce chemical building blocks from plant-based sugars.Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle 

With cost a major obstacle to the mainstream future of renewable plastics, companies like Avantium have worked hard at making such methods cost-competitive. It has been developing PEF since 2010.Coca-Cola 2020 PlantBottle 

Companies downstream, such as Coca-Cola, are spending vast amounts of time and money on sustainability initiatives and new routes to plastics will continue to promise much, even if up to now they’ve not been quite able to live up to the billing.

Avantium has seen enough to convince it that Liquid Light’s technology is a real game-changer. And big brands and converters are taking note.

To celebrate the ‘big reveal’ of the site, we’ve also launched a family of eBooks that focus on specific sectors of the plastics packaging industry, and we will be adding to the range throughout the year.

Steven Pacitti