The drive to achieve sustainability encompasses all aspects of modern life. What we eat and wear, how we travel, the homes we live in, the sports and leisure activities we enjoy: all have an impact on the environment. And sustainability requires not just an energy transition, but also a materials transition. At Amsterdam Science Park, researchers and businesses are developing ground-breaking alternatives to traditional materials. They are creating the building blocks of a new economy.
It’s basic. Every industry needs materials. Whether that’s concrete and steel for building, plastic and cardboard for packaging, fabric for clothing, chips for computers or raw materials for pharmaceuticals. Currently many of these materials are single-use, non-biodegradable and non-renewable. In other words, not sustainable.
Sustainable materials are materials that can be produced and used in a way that minimises their environmental impact and maximises their positive contributions to society. Trade-offs will always need to be made, as all materials have some kind of environmental impact. Bamboo, for example, is often cited as a sustainable material and is indeed renewable, re-usable, durable and economical. But growing sufficient bamboo to meet the global demand for materials would have a negative impact on land use and natural habitats. Research and innovation are key to meeting the demand for materials that will benefit both business and our planet.
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Nearly everything that is sold today is packaged in plastic, and 98% of all this plastic is made using oil or gas. Most plastics take hundreds of years to degrade, and biomaterials account for less than 2% of the nearly 400 million metric tonnes of plastic produced in 2021. Research into and development of sustainable alternatives to plastic is a major focus at Amsterdam Science Park.
The research cluster Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is a centre of expertise in sustainable production solutions, including sustainable materials. Areas of specialisation include:
Companies searching for sustainable solutions for their production processes and material use have been quick to take advantage of the research at Amsterdam Science Park.
Photanol, for instance, grew out of research at UvA into adapting cyanobacteria to synthesize ethanol and create carbon compounds. Through photosynthesis, cyanobacteria capture CO2, keep the carbon and return oxygen as a by-product. Photanol works with this process by optimising the bacteria to absorb more CO2 and adapting its metabolic pathways to produce a desired chemical. This means the company can create clean, renewable and circular carbon compounds, such as the monomers used for different plastics.
The Functional Materials group of the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS) has entered a partnership with the company Alucha Works to develop circular calcium carbonate, a mineral used extensively by the painting, coating, plastic and paper industries.
Avantium is a pioneer in renewable and sustainable chemistry, commercialising innovative technologies for the production of circular plastic materials that can be used for consumer products.
Plantics is a highly successful spinoff company founded by two professors at the UvA, who invented a new type of thermoset bio-resins produced out of waste material from plants. The discovery has enabled the development of CO2-negative bio-resins suitable for a wide variety of commercial applications. These raw materials are now available on an industrial scale in Europe. Plantics, together with its partner furniture maker VEPA, won the “Renewable material of the Year 2021” innovation award at the Renewable Materials Conference in 2021.
Avantium is pioneering innovative technologies for the production of circular plastics and chemicals from renewable sources. CTO Gert-Jan Gruter also holds a chair in sustainable chemistry at UvA and leads a team of students and researchers working on the materials transition. Current projects include the production of a building block to replace the ‘T’ in ‘PET’ – polyethylene terephthalate, used in the production of plastic bottles – with the sustainable alternative PEF (polyethylene furarate). The construction of a €200-million factory is currently underway. When completed, it will be the first to produce PEF.
Another project is looking at a technology that uses CO2 as a raw material. CO2 is essential for the materials transition, according to Gruter. “If you look at future raw materials, biomass and CO2, there is a limit to how much biomass is available, so CO2 will also play an important role as a carbon source.” Gruter and his team recently finished work on an EU programme researching the conversion of CO2 into an acid. It’s a process that can lead to future carbon sources with a potential negative footprint. This is a big breakthrough, he says, “because we cannot just go to zero emissions.” Instead, the aim is “net zero emissions, which means that you compensate emissions with negative emissions”. The same EU project also led to the creation of high-quality plastic material made entirely from CO2.
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