Promising alternatives to plastic in the pipes of a Swiss start-up

In collaboration with the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Bloom Biorenewables wants to put chemistry at the service of the environment by creating sustainable circular materials from biomass.

Wood, straw, cherry stone or walnut shell to produce bioplastics, textiles, cosmetics and perfumes. Swiss start-up Bloom Biorenewables has developed a technology that makes it possible to exploit biomass and make it an alternative to petroleum in materials.

This content was posted on September 5, 2020 – 11:00 am

“When I started my studies in chemistry, the courses were mainly focused on petrochemistry, that is, the transformation of oil. But today, more and more green chemistry is being taught. We hope that the chemists of the future will no longer use oil, because we can do without it,” notes Florent Héroguel, co-founder and COO of Bloom Biorenewables.external link.

The young company, which started as a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), not only wants to do without oil in chemical research, but also to replace it in everyday life. This polluting material now accompanies us everywhere, in our clothes, shoes, smartphones, computers, furniture, packaging and bottles. Petroleum derivatives are also found in our dishes in the form of aromas such as vanillin, in perfumes, cosmetics and detergents, and even in medicines.

“In the area of ​​energy, great progress has been made in the development of alternative sources to oil”, explains Florent Héroguel. But for materials, we’re just at the beginning and it’s probably even harder. You need another carbon source. It is found in CO2 in the atmosphere, which is difficult to recover, or in biomass. What we do is look for carbon in biomass, because we can make sustainable and circular products out of it.”

Not just bioethanol and paper

The biomass used in EPFL’s Sustainable and Catalytic Processes Laboratory (LPDCexternal link), with which the start-up collaborates, is made from wood, tree bark, leaves, cherry and peach stone, walnut shell and other lignocellulosic materials from several countries, including Switzerland. Lignocellulose, the most common raw material on our planet, contains three main elements: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.

The start-up is testing plants from different countries at the EPFL to develop materials that can compete with petroleum derivatives.

Biomass is increasingly used to produce bioethanol, but it has properties that can replace oil in many other applications. “Until now, its main industrial use is in papermaking. Thus, only 40% of the wood is extracted, the rest is burned or thrown away. We, on the other hand, want to recover at least 75% of the lignocellulosic biomass to offer an alternative to oil”, explains Florent Héroguel.

For their tests at EPFL, the Bloom Biorenewables researchers use a 10-liter reactor, in which the biomass is heated and treated with solvents to produce various elements. The first fraction, cellulose, is recovered through a filter. A lignin-containing liquid and a hemicellulose-containing liquid are then separated. These elements are then isolated, purified and tested using a range of equipment available in École Polytechnique laboratories, incubators, centrifuges, chromatographs, etc.

Textiles and bioplastics

“With pulp, we could also make paper. But our aim is to extract as much as possible, for example to make textiles. Today, there is not enough cotton to meet the demand, so most textiles are produced from petroleum, such as polyester or acrylic. However, the textile industry is increasingly looking for alternatives to produce more ecologically correct products, as polyesters are harmful to the environment”, explains the co-founder of Bloom Biorenewables.

Today there are already textiles produced from biomass. The leader in this sector is an Austrian company. In Switzerland, projects are emerging. “But there are still a number of open questions about the feasibility and potential of the processes currently in use. Therefore, we are working with partners to develop alternative, less polluting and more efficient processes, using plant residues, not just forest residues”, explains Florent Héroguel, showing transparent bioplastic threads made from cellulose extracted in the laboratory.

Samples of bioplastic produced from cellulose.

The start-up started collaborations with partners to also explore the properties of hemicellulose, particularly suitable for the production of bioplastics, intended to replace polypropylene packaging. A sector that has the wind in its sails. With its new Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU aims to end waste, demand sustainable plastic packaging and other plastic products, and strengthen producer responsibility. Big food companies such as Nestle and Danone have announced that they want to achieve carbon neutrality within a few years, replacing current packaging with products made from plant-based materials.

flavors and fragrances

But the element the start-up relies on most is lignin. “The lignin found on the market condenses during extraction, then it degrades and becomes very dark. Instead, our process stabilizes it, preventing condensation and degradation. Thus, we can extract a very pure and light-colored lignin with which we can, for example, manufacture cosmetics. Or we depolymerize it under relatively mild conditions, to extract aromatic molecules for the food and perfume industry”, explains Florent Héroguel.

The food and perfume industries are also looking for new plant-based materials to replace petroleum. Bloom Biorenewables researchers have been experimenting with various possible applications for several years with companies in these industries, with good experience in producing molecules for vanillin, eugenol and smoky flavors.

Florent Héroguel, COO of Bloom Biorenewables.

“We started our research in 2015 at EPFL, in the laboratory of Professor Jeremy Luterbacher, to find solutions for better use of biomass. We quickly realized that the biggest potential and the biggest market was for lignin. Today, no one can produce lignin of this quality that can be used in high value-added products, such as perfumes”.

From the lab to the market

In 2017, young researchers at EPFL registered a first patent for the production of lignin. Given the positive reactions from the scientific community, Bloom Biorenewables was founded two years later by Florent Héroguel, Jeremy Luterbacher and Remy Buser to industrialize this laboratory technology. The start-up – which has already received several awards, including that of the Vigier Foundation – quickly convinced investors. In August, it also received a contribution of more than three million Swiss francs, partially invested by the Japanese company Yokogawa, active mainly in chemicals and energy.

These funds will, in particular, finance the company’s new headquarters, located in Marly, near Fribourg. Thanks to the collaboration of the University of Engineering and Architecture (HEIA) in Freiburg, researchers can now use much larger reactors (600 liters) to produce lignin and other substances extracted from biomass. This lab will allow them to continue their experiments with partners to register new patents and start the commercialization phase. In 2022, the young company plans to build a factory with an estimated cost of between 30 and 50 million Swiss francs to start industrial production.

“From one ton of biomass, we expect to be able to extract 750 to 900 kilos of material for the production of textiles, bioplastics and lignin, which is a very high rate”, underlines Florent Héroguel. The young entrepreneur is convinced that this new technology will not only contribute to the protection of the environment, but also to give chemistry a new image. “Even today, when we say we do chemistry, a lot of people look sideways at us and think we’re not clean. But in reality, with chemistry, we can make a huge contribution to protecting our planet.”

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