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Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) - The Rising Star Amongst Today's Bioplastics

Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) - The Rising Star Amongst Today's Bioplastics

Today, bioplastics are recognized as one of the key sustainable elements of 21st century. They offer an improved balance between the environmental benefits and the environmental impact of plastics. Among them, one bio-based polymer which has gained immense popularity in the past few years is: PEF - Polyethylene Furanoate!

This next-gen polymer offers a great potential to replace oil-based polymers. It is renewable, non-toxic and a recyclable alternate with similar properties. However, there are still several aspects that need consideration for efficient production of PEF at commercial scale.

Explore more about this polymer in detail! Get information about its properties, applications, growth aspects... And, understand what makes PEF a bio-based polymer of future for packaging applications and more.


What is PEF - Polyethylene Furanoate?

What is PEF - Polyethylene Furanoate?

Polyethylene Furanoate or PEF is a 100% recyclable, bio-based polymer produced using renewable raw materials (sugars) derived from plants.

PEF is referred as the next generation polyester which exhibits great potential to replace polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a durable polymer derived from conventional synthetic resources.

As compared to PET, PEF offers numerous benefits such as:

  • Superior barrier performance as well as mechanical and thermal properties
  • High glass transition temperature and lower melting point
  • Recyclable and hence reduced carbon footprint
  • Cost competitive at industrial scale

At the same time, it improves packaging sustainability since PEF produced from FDCA is 100% biobased when biobased monoethylene glycol (MEG) is used.

PEF is produced when furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is polymerized in presence of ethylene glycol. At the level of its manufacture, the synthetic route is similar to that of PET, the terephthalic acid being substituted by 2,5 furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA).

Synthesis of Polyethylene Furanoate

Furanics: World is Behind ‘Sleeping Giants’

Furanics: World is Behind ‘Sleeping Giants’

5-hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF), 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) and 2,5-dimethylfuran (2,5-DMF) are the main representatives of the furanics (furan derivatives) family. Furans have been referred as “Sleeping Giants” of renewable intermediate chemicals because of their enormous market potential.

C6 Sugars (Carbohydrates) are found to be excellent source for the production of furanics monomer. HMF and FDCA are identified as high potential starting materials (precursors) for PEF.

HMF and FDCA - High Potential Starting Materials (Precursors) for PEF
Source: Avantium

FDCA (Furandicarboxylic acid or 2,5-Furan Dicarboxylic Acid) (C6H6O3; MW = 126.11) is a bio-based building block for resins and polymers. It holds potential and used to produce high value products such as:

  • Polyesters 
  • Polyamides
  • Copolymers
  • Solvents
  • Coating resins and plasticizers

It is formed by an oxidative dehydration of hexose. The conversion can also be carried out by oxidation of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF).

FDCA has a large potential as a replacement of terephthalic acid (PTA). PTA is widely used conventional synthetic component used to produce polyesters such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polybutylene terephthalate (PBT).

While, FDCA is used to produce relatively news class of polymer called polyethylene furanoate (PEF) which exhibits enormous potential to produce bio-based plastics bottles.

FDCA has a Large Potential as a Replacement of Terephthalic Acid (PTA)
Source: Synvina

Few methods used to produce FDCA include:

  1. Dehydration of hexose derivatives,
  2. Oxidation of 2,5-disubstituted furans, and
  3. Catalytic conversion of furan derivatives

Further the versatility of FDCA is also seen in the number of derivatives available via relatively simple chemical transformations. Selective reduction can lead to:

  • Partially hydrogenated products, such as 2,5-dihydroxymethylfuran, and
  • Fully hydrogenated materials, such as 2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydrofuran

Both of these materials can be used as alcohol components to produce new polyester. As well as their combination with FDCA would lead to a new family of completely biomass-derived products.

However, there are some technical barriers associated with production and use of FDCA.

  1. High process as well as its production is further limited by availability of the intermediate hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF)

  2. Development of effective and selective dehydration processes for sugars
    Sugar dehydration could leading to a wide range of additional, inexpensive building blocks. Currently, dehydration processes are generally non-selective, unless the unstable intermediate products can be transformed to more stable materials as soon as it is formed. Necessary R&D will include development of selective dehydration systems and catalysts.

  3. Development and control of FDCA esterification reactions as well as control reactivity of the FDCA monomer
    Intense knowledge of chemistry occurring between acid and alcohol during polymer formulation and the properties of final polymer is an important aspect to understand this technology further and use it for commercial production.

How PEF is superior than PET?

How PEF is superior than PET?

  • PEF has very good barrier properties (hard to achieve with most bio-based polymers)
    • O2 barrier – 6 times greater than PET
    • CO2 barrier – 3 times better than PET
    • H2O barrier – 2 times better than PET

  • PEF also has interesting mechanical properties compared to PET.
    • Higher Tg (glass transition temperature)
    • Lower Tm (melting point)
    • Higher modulus
Properties Comparison PEF and PET
Source: Corbion

  • Better tensile strength
  • PEF requires less additives than PET
  • PEF can be recycled and incorporated into the PET recycle streams at up to 5% PEF with no effect on the recycled PET performance
  • Permits greater light weighting and superior thermal stability without heat-setting (can be hot filled at about 200° F)
  • PEF holds potential to demonstrate cost efficiency as compared to PET

Benefits of PEF Over Other Commodity Plastics
PEF versus Existing Packaging Materials
Source: Avantium and BASF

Recycling of PEF

Recycling of PEF

Products Made of PEF Can Easily be Recycled
Products made of PEF can easily be recycled or converted back to atmospheric CO2 by incineration. Eventually, that CO2 will be taken up by grass, weeds and other plants, which can then be used to make more PEF.

PEF to PEF recycling is similar to PET recycling

  • PEF can be separated from PET by IR sorting and recycled to ‘rPEF’ using the same steps as PET (mechanical or chemical recycling using same steps as PET)
  • PEF significantly less impact on rPET then Nylon or PLA

PEF reduces the need for multi-material functionality in packaging. However there are still some steps to be taken in packaging re-design and waste management.

Polyethylene Furanoate is the next step towards circular economy

Growth Prospects of PEF - Lab to Market

Growth Prospects of PEF - Lab to Market

The utility of FDCA as a PET/PBT analog offers an important opportunity to address a high volume, high value chemical market. To achieve this opportunity, R&D to develop selective oxidation and dehydration technology is being carried out.

As discussed above, 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is an important chemical intermediate for PEF production and several chemical companies are currently working on manufacturing it.

  • AVA-CO2 offers a patented conversion process of 5-HMF to FDCA
  • Wageningen UR has successfully prepared FDCA semi-aromatic polyesters
  • Avantium, along with BASF is working towards making FDCA and PEF a commercial reality
  • Corbion is also working on manufacture of FDCA for PEF
  • ETH Zurich develops new method that could finally make the PEF marketable

Out of these Synvina (BASF + Avantium JV) and Corbion are focusing their energies on FDCA for PEF.

Corbion has developed a propriety process to produce FDCA and is currently working with dedicated partners to further develop and commercialize it.

Corbion in FDCA to PEF Value chain
Source: Corbion

Avantium developed and patented YXY technology platform aimed at manufacturing bio fuels, bio-based plastics and bio chemicals. The JV between Avantium and BASF established strategic partnership with Danone, Coca-Cola and ALPLA for developing and commercializing bio-based polymers derived from PEF.

In 2014, Avantium, Danone, Swire Pacific and Coca-Cola signed a consortium of USD 50 million investments aimed at developing and commercializing the alternative to PET for packaging applications.

In 2014, Avantium demonstrated the application of PEF for manufacturing of fibers to make 100% bio-based t-shirts for textile manufacturers.

  • The Coca Cola company, Danone, ALPLA partner for the development of 100% bio-based PEF bottles
  • Wifag-polytype for PEF thermoformed products and other partnerships in various stages for PEF fibers, films etc.

Synvina Progress - Lab to Industrial Scale
Source: Synvina

However, commercial production and launch of FDCA and PEF is expected to be operation by 2024.

Watch Now!
Interview with Patrick Schiffers, Synvina.
At the European Bioplastics Conference in Berlin November 2017

Another breakthrough research reported by ETH Zurich researchers reveals a new method that could enable the commercial breakthrough of PEF.

In their study, instead of making the usual "rope-like" polymer chains with two end points react, researchers first tie rings from the latter, which thus have no ends anymore. These rings can then be polymerized to PEF in a controlled manner. The new method leads to no chemical by-products production when the rings are opened and connected to form the final long "polymer rope".

The new method is claimed to reduce:

  • Production time from several days to few hours and 
  • Energy requirements

Scientists are now further working with Suzler to investigate how the new process could be implemented in industrial mass production.

Key Applications

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2 Comments on "Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) - The Rising Star Amongst Today's Bioplastics"
Leonardo M Mar 2, 2022
What on earth are you people talking about? This polymer does not actually exist on the market. Synvina has been abandoned by BASF in 2018, and is an empty husk. No plant was built in 2019. Or 2020. Or 2021. Or is under construction in 2022. Does "the future" ever get a simple update?
Heinrich Dr. H Aug 26, 2021
Very interesting and promising!

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