Coca-Cola partners with three biotech firms to develop bio-PET

By Bryan Sims | December 16, 2011

In its aggressive effort of striving to achieve sustainable plastic packaging sourced from renewable sources, Atlanta-based beverage conglomerate The Coca-Cola Co. forged multi-million dollar joint development and supply agreements with three leading biotech companies—Gevo Inc., Virent Energy Systems Inc. and Avantium—to accelerate the development of the first commercial solutions for its next-generation trademarked PlantBottle packaging made 100 percent from plant-based materials. A total investment amount wasn’t disclosed.

According to Rick Frazier, Coke’s vice president of commercial bottle supply, the company vetted more than 30 different companies before selecting the three companies.

“While the technology to make biobased materials in a lab has been available for years, we believe Virent, Gevo and Avantium are companies that possess technologies that have high potential for creating them on a global commercial scale within the next few years,” Frazier said. “This is a significant R&D investment in packaging innovation and is the next step toward our vision of creating all of our plastic packaging from responsibly sourced plant-based materials.”

Through the investments, Coke is targeting to advance biorefining technology that can produce and supply biobased terephthalic acid (TPA), which makes up 70 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin by weight. Monoethylene glycol (MEG), the remaining 30 percent biobased formulation in bio-PET, has been used in Coke’s PlantBottle since it was introduced in December 2009. According to Coke, the company has distributed more than 10 billion PlantBottle packages in 20 countries worldwide since its inception.

It’s estimated that the use of PlantBottle packaging in the first two years alone helped save the equivalent annual emissions of more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to Coke. The company intends to make further investments in PlantBottle technology and aims to use the sustainable packaging for the company’s entire virgin PET supply by 2020.

According to Coke, all three of the companies will work independently of each other, “but within the guardrails of our strategy," Frasier said. Each company will bring their own unique route, technology platforms and skill sets to bear in the partnership with Coke for producing their respective biobased chemical building blocks that could contribute to a 54 million-metric-ton PET market worth an estimated $100 billion globally.

Englewood, Colo.-based Gevo aims to employ its patented integrated fermentation technology—trademarked GIFT—to convert sugars found in biomass into isobutanol, which can then be used to make the aromatic hydrocarbon paraxylene; a key building block for the production of TPA. Gevo has demonstrated the production of isobutanol and paraxylene at a 1 MMgy retrofitted facility in St. Joseph, Mo., and its expects to begin commercial production of isobutanol in late 2012 at a corn-ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., that it acquired in September 2010.

Gevo has a discreet supply agreement with Japanese chemical giant Toray Industries Inc. to supply lab-scale quantities of its biobasd paraxylene, which Toray has successfully converted to PET films and fibers. In July, Gevo also partnered with Texas-based South Hampton Resources to build a proposed demonstration hydrocarbon processing facility in Silsbee, Texas. South Hampton Resources, a subsidiary of Arabian American Development Co., will build and operate the 10,000-gallon-per-month facility, which, upon completion, according to Gevo, will produce a number of products including biojet fuel, isooctane for gasoline and paraxylene.

“We are extremely gratified to have won the confidence of The Coca-Cola Company and are excited to support Coca-Cola’s sustainable packaging goals with this agreement to develop and commercialize technology to produce paraxylene from biobased isobutanol,” said Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo. “New technologies need champions. The Coca-Cola Company is in a unique position to drive and influence change in the global packaging supply chain with this development. You cannot ask for a better champion than one of the world’s most respected and admired consumer brands.”

Alternatively, Madison, Wisc.-based Virent has demonstrated it can produce biobased paraxylene, trademarked BioFormPX, directly from its BioForming process without the need for further refining. The company has demonstrated it can produce biobased paraxylene from a range of starch-based and lignocellulosic biomass since June at its 10,000-gallon-per-year demonstration plant, called Project Eagle, in Madison. The company employs a novel combination of aqueous phase reforming technology, BioForming, with modified conventional catalytic processing. Virent expects to have a commercial plant online by 2015.

“The Coca-Cola Company’s commitment to provide its customers with PlantBottle packaging made from 100 percent renewable and recyclable materials is a bold example of visionary brand leadership,” said Lee Edwards, CEO of Virent. “I am delighted that Virent’s partnership with Coca-Cola will play a significant role in achieving this vision.”

Additionally, Virent expects that the majority of its biobased paraxylene produced at its first commercial plant will be allocated for purchase by Coke’s supply chain partners for the company’s product packaging with the remaining reserves going to market development in complementary PET and polyester applications.

Unlike Gevo and Virent, Dutch company Avantium has developed a novel route based on its furanics-based technology platform, called “YXY," from sugars found in biomass to produce 2,5 furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), an alternative monomer used to make polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a viable alternative to TPA. Avantium officially opened a 40-ton-per-year pilot-scale facility in the Geleen, Netherlands, on Dec. 8 to produce biobased PEF. The collaboration with Coke, according to Avantium CEO Tom van Aken, is key to a smooth transition into the mass production phase of PEF bottles.

“PEF is 100 percent biobased and when commercialized will be fully recyclable,” van Aken said. “We have already made bottles with exceptional barrier and thermal properties and our production process fits well with existing supply chains. We plan to initiate commercial production of PEF in about three to four years.”

The company said it expects that other large co-development partners will join beginning in early 2012.

“I think Coca-Cola Company made a very good strategic move in identifying the right players,” said Jim Lunt, managing director for Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, a consultant firm that specializes in the polymer, fiber, foams, thermoplastic elastomers, films and molded products industries headquartered in Wayzata, Minn. “From the players in the field today Gevo and Virent would appear to be the strongest potential contenders to make biobased TPA effectively. PEF fits a different model because if you make PEF, and Avantium is the only one that has demonstrated that it can, you may have recycling questions, especially in the U.S. Targeting the European TPA market likely might be better strategic option for Avantium, but that remains to be seen.”

From a technology point-of-view, Lunt told Biorefining Magazine that Coke’s strategic investments in the three companies may now pit the company ahead of its main competitor, global beverage and food giant PepsiCo, which announced in March a 100 percent biobased PET bottle that would go into pilot production by 2012. According to PepsiCo, the company combined biological and chemical processes to create a molecular structure identical to petroleum-based PET that looks and feels and performs identically to existing PET beverage containers, however, it noted that the work and how those technologies were brought together is confidential.

In addition to its partnerships with Gevo, Virent and Avantium, Coke is also looking for opportunities to advance smart innovation across the industry. Earlier this year, Coke announced an industry-first partnership with H.J. Heinz Co. that allows Heinz to produce its ketchup bottles using PlantBottle technology, which officially launched this summer.

Separately, Coke already produces a fully recyclable high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic made 100 percent from plant material and is available through its trademarked Odwalla juice brand products. While HDPE is an ideal package for some refrigerated juice products, it’s not suitable for shelf-stable carbonated and still beverages, the company stated.