Sulzer, the leading provider of polylactic acid (PLA) solutions, is expanding its R&D capabilities in Switzerland. The company is investing in testing facilities to support the scale-up and commercialization of pioneering biopolymer processes and plastic recycling technologies.

Today, the world produces more than 380 million tons of plastics every year. It is a valuable and versatile material with ever-growing application areas, but the rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products is stretching our ability to deal with the waste.

A lot of plastics end up back in our natural environment, accumulating on our shorelines, in our oceans or in landfills and persisting for decades. Today, plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues.

Establishing a new dedicated R&D facility for biopolymers

The detrimental impacts throughout the life cycle of fossil fuel-based plastics – land and water pollution, carbon emissions and toxins released upon incineration – underline the need for alternative biopolymers made from renewable resources.

Sulzer is a leader in this field. We are putting our money where our mouth is by expanding our R&D center located in Oberwinterthur, Switzerland. The company’s biopolymer technology portfolio brings highly sustainable and alternative solutions to the market – with significant social, economic and environmental benefits.

Making our way towards a circular economy

Division President Chemtech

Inside of a factory
Our R&D facility in Winterthur for the production of biopolymers.

Torsten Wintergerste, Division President Chemtech, outlines the stumbling blocks on the journey towards a world with more sustainable plastic solutions – and how Sulzer innovation helps find a way out of the plastic crisis.

Why don’t we see more bioplastics and plastic recycling technologies in use today? What are the obstacles?

The engineering of plastic materials has been constantly evolving since the Second World War, to replace wood, glass or metal products with inexpensive plastic equivalents. These engineered plastics are not easy to recycle, nor can they be easily replaced with bio-based alternatives with similar physical properties – produced at reasonable costs. While promising technologies exist at laboratory or pilot scale, it takes time and effort to scale up and improve these processes for the mass market. Furthermore, it requires all players within the value chain to optimize and streamline their processes. Public policies favoring the use of bio- or recycled materials can accelerate this trend. Nowadays, there is fortunately a global consciousness of this issue that is enabling a fast-pace transition to the desired circularity for plastics.

What is so special about Sulzer’s technology to produce biopolymers?

Biopolymers are produced from natural feedstocks and are thus degradable. These feedstocks are transformed by biochemical or chemical processes into biomonomers – the building blocks of biopolymers. As biomonomers consist of natural resources, they contain various impurities that must be removed prior to the polymerization process. Our technology consists of highly efficient process steps to produce and purify the biomonomers for conversion into biopolymers. This exclusive production platform is suitable for a wide range of very promising biopolymers (such as PEF, PLA and potential copolymers) that can be used for packaging, agricultural, transport and medical purposes.

The keyword of our newly designed plants is flexibility. Our facilities can create pure biopolymers of controlled length, structure and properties. Furthermore, our technology can process various raw materials – while maintaining Swiss quality and accuracy!

Please tell us more about Sulzer’s R&D program for plastics

Our R&D program is based on three pillars: functionality at reduced weight thanks to our foaming technology, closed-loop recycling of plastics, and sustainable production of biopolymers. Behind our program is a team of fully committed process specialists, driven by the ambition to provide a solution to today’s environmental challenges. We all strongly believe that our efforts to develop advanced process solutions for polymeric foams, biopolymers and for the recycling of conventional polymers is the right path forward.

Scaling-up the production of bioplastics

Biopolymers like polylactic acid (PLA) and polyethylene 2,5-furandicarboxylate (PEF) provide a sustainable alternative to conventional plastic materials. In contrast to PET, these materials are based on renewable feedstocks such as sugars, starches or agricultural waste.

As a leading one-stop provider for PLA processes, Sulzer has already supplied large commercial-scale PLA plants to customers. Our teams have also produced lab-scale batches of novel polymers with unique barrier and tensile properties, such as PEF and PLA copolymers, with new and exciting physical properties that greatly expand the field of potential application of biopolymers (beer bottles! complex packaging!). Industrial partnerships emphasize the potential of this technology, and production will be scaled up with the new pilot plant in the first half of 2021.

Increasing the recycling rate of plastics to 50%

Despite rising efforts in the field of biopolymers, most plastics are currently non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, ending up in landfills and incineration plants.

To tackle this issue, a growing number of companies around the globe are developing chemical recycling technologies. It is expected that these processes can increase the recycling rate of all plastics from today’s levels of around 15% to 50% by 2030.

Building a pilot plant for plastic recycling technologies

In 2019, Sulzer demonstrated the uniqueness of its fractionation technology, used as an essential purification step in plastic-to-liquid (PtL) recycling processes of industry innovators like Danish company Quantafuel. Quantafuel developed a solution to recycle plastic packaging waste into usable fuels. We will now take the next step to further develop and expand the fields of application of this technology, with a dedicated new pilot plant in Allschwil, Switzerland.

The plant is designed to upgrade the outputs from various plastic recycling processes by separating and/or purifying them. These purified outputs will be used as fuels or monomers, enabling circularity for plastic waste. We are already testing the process on our existing units as we prepare to begin operations at the new plant in the second half of 2021.


Advancing the sustainable production of plastics

Our partnerships with various universities, such as our Swiss neighbors ETH Zurich, along with start-up companies, customers and other stakeholders in the value chain allow us to decrease time to market for these new solutions.

Reducing carbon footprints and negative environmental impacts is what drives Sulzer’s innovation program. We help turn ideas into commercially viable reality, to foster a circular economy.

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