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

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

Wood, straw, cherry pits or walnut shells 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 published on September 05, 2020 – 11:00

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

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

“In the field 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 atmospheric CO2, which is difficult to recover, or in biomass. What we do is look for carbon in biomass, because from it we can make sustainable and circular products.”

Not just bioethanol and paper

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

The startup 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 petroleum in many other applications. “Until now, its main industrial use is in papermaking. Thus, only 40% of the wood is harvested, 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 the EPFL, the Bloom Biorenewables researchers use a 10-liter reactor, in which biomass is heated and treated with solvents, to produce various elements. The first fraction, cellulose, is recovered through a filter. A liquid containing lignin and another containing hemicellulose are then separated. These elements are then isolated, purified and tested using a variety of equipment available in the École Polytechnique laboratories, incubators, centrifuges, chromatographs, etc.

Textiles and bioplastics

“With cellulose, we could also make paper. But our goal is to extract as much as possible, for example to make textiles. Today, there is not enough cotton to meet demand, so most fabrics are produced from petroleum, such as polyester or acrylic. However, the textile industry is increasingly looking for alternatives to produce more environmentally friendly products, because 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. We are therefore working with partners to develop alternative, less polluting and more efficient processes, using plant residues, not just from forests”, explains Florent Héroguel, showing transparent bioplastic threads made from cellulose extracted in the laboratory.

Samples of bioplastic produced from cellulose.

The start-up initiated 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. Large food companies such as Nestlé and Danone have announced that they want to achieve carbon neutrality in a few years, replacing current packaging with products made from plant materials.

flavors and fragrances

But the element the startup relies on most is lignin. “The lignin found on the market condenses during extraction, so it degrades and becomes very dark. Instead, our process stabilizes it, preventing condensation and degradation. In this way, we manage to extract a very pure and light colored lignin with which we can, for example, manufacture cosmetics. Or we depolymerize under relatively mild conditions, to extract aromatic molecules for the food and perfumery 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 several possible applications for several years with companies in these sectors, with a good experience in the production of molecules for vanillin, eugenol and smoked flavors.

Florent Héroguel, COO of Bloom Biorenewables.

“We started our research in 2015 at EPFL, in Professor Jeremy Luterbacher’s laboratory, to find solutions for better use of biomass. We quickly realized that the biggest potential and the biggest market was for lignin. Today, nobody can produce lignin with this quality that can be used in high value-added products, such as perfumes”.

From the lab to the market

In 2017, young EPFL researchers 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 from 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 chemical products and energy.

These funds will, in particular, finance the company’s new headquarters, located in Marly, near Freiburg. 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 laboratory 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 at an estimated cost of CHF 30-50 million to start industrial production.

“From a ton of biomass, we expect to extract 750 to 900 kilograms of material for the production of textiles, bioplastics and lignin, which is a very high rate”, points out Florent Héroguel. The young entrepreneur is convinced that this new technology will not only help protect the environment, but also give chemistry a new image. “Even today, when we say we do chemistry, many people look at it with distrust and think it’s not clean. But in reality, with chemistry we can make a big contribution to protecting our planet.”

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