Petroleum derivatives are used to make all sorts of goods: plastics, textiles, smartphones, furniture, and flavorings – like vanillin – not to mention cosmetics, detergents and pharmaceuticals. “Everyone knows that releasing massive amounts of fossil carbons into the air is a major contributor to global warming. However, most people don't realize how dependent we are on fossil fuels and how urgently we need to put an end to all these emissions,” says Rémy Buser, CEO of Bloom Biorenewables, an EPFL spin-off.
Guided by this belief and a determination to cut carbon emissions, Buser, along with the company’s co-founder and COO Florent Héroguel and their team are working hard to rapidly market a technology originally developed at EPFL. Their discovery would let manufacturers use renewable carbon from biomass as a substitute for petroleum, particularly for making packaging plastics, perfume and marine biofuels. The €3.9 million in capital the company recently raised provides key resources for business development and serves as a sign of recognition from industry professionals around the world. The fund-raising round was led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures-Europe (BEV-E), a new European fund launched by a consortium including Bill Gates. BEV-E supports start-ups that are “visionary, bold and focused on a global carbon-reduction strategy.”
Although alternatives to using petroleum as an energy source are coming to the fore, there are currently no cost-effective, non-fossil carbon sources to replace it in manufactured products. Manufacturers not wanting to rely on fossil fuels are faced with two possible solutions: use the carbon found in atmospheric CO2 – though difficult to capture in its dispersed form – or extract carbon from biomass. At present, only cellulose, which accounts for about 40% of biomass’ total weight, can be recovered; it is extracted in the form of fiber, which can be used to make paper, for example, or refined into bioethanol. The rest is either burned or discarded. Bloom Biorenewables' technology allows biomass' other components, namely lignin and hemicellulose, to be recovered intact. Potential applications are wide-ranging, and would let manufacturers use nearly 75% of this environment-friendly resource.
Using bioplastics to replace polypropylene
Lignin and hemicellulose are polymers found in rigid plant cell walls. Together, they account for some 30%–40% of a plant's biomass. Lignin's energy density is 30% higher than that of cellulose. Until now, one of the stumbling blocks in using it has been its troublesome tendency to break down during processing. In 2016, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing (LPDC) developed a method that resolves this problem by adding an aldehyde. “Aldehydes – which can be produced easily, inexpensively and in an environmentally-friendly manner – stabilize the lignin and hemicellulose and keep them from disintegrating,” says Héroguel. The two components can thus be extracted (and used) separately.
Hemicellulose in particular can be used to manufacture various types of bioplastics, including packaging materials to replace polypropylene. “One of the aims of the Circular Economy Action Plan – an EU roadmap for achieving climate neutrality by 2050 – is to make sustainable packaging and other plastic products mandatory and increase producer responsibility,” says Buser. Large companies, especially food producers, have already started down this road. And the market for sustainable carbon-based materials is just as huge as the one for their fossil-fuel counterparts. “Take textiles, for example. Cotton production alone cannot meet demand.” Thanks to “green chemistry” processes, which seek to eliminate the use of environmentally-harmful substances, lignin can be used as a raw material in perfume and flavorings.
“With our technology, manufacturers can produce sustainable, circular products,” says Héroguel. The advantage of “green” carbon is that it fits into the earth's natural cycle and prevents the imbalances caused by extracting the carbon that has been buried for tens of millions of years – and which is largely responsible for global warming.
The €3.9 million in funding will allow Bloom Biorenewables to hire additional staff and set up its own R&D center near Lausanne, where it can ramp up production in order to win manufacturers over to its new raw material.