COST network wants to introduce innovative and sustainable furan-based plastics on the market

22/07/2021

Polymers, commonly known as plastic, are some of the most used materials in the world with a vast range of applications such packaging, textiles, microwaveable plastics, resins, paint and even disposable cups and plates. With an ever-growing demand for such products, it is no accident that modern society relies on huge quantities of polymeric materials (polymers). Unfortunately, the majority of these materials are almost exclusively based on finite and unrenewable fossil-resources whereas alternatives exist with biomass-derived polymers and could be soon introduced on the market. But research on natural polymers is scattered in individual initiatives, thus making market introduction particularly challenging.

In this context, COST Action “European network of FURan based chemicals and materials FOR a Sustainable development” (FUR4sustain), as a multidisciplinary network, is bringing together for the first time experts, industries, scientists, manufacturers etc. from the complete polymers value-chain to encourage market introduction of sustainable furan-based polymer products.

Furans, a green alternative to synthetic plastics

Polymers pose serious questions in terms of sustainability, recycling and protecting the planet. Today, the majority of plastics is made out of petrochemicals like fuel, but green alternatives do exist under the shape of Furans, organic (biosourced) compounds. “The polymer is the final product”, explains Prof. Andreia Sousa, Chair of the FUR4sustain Action, “Chemicals, for example furans, are building blocks used to produce polymers. We use biomass from plants as a starting material and we transform into these furans. And from building blocks, which are chemicals, we produce different sorts of polymers”. Biomass – plant waste material – is an interesting trait of furans. “We know that these furans have great potential because there are based on renewable resources: for example, they are derived from sugar, and you can make polymer out of it”, adds Prof. Sousa.

Such a Furan – and there are much more – is “2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid” usually referred to as FDCA and starting point of the FUR4sustain Action. “Usually, polymers made from furans like FDCA are very special because they have similar and even better properties than the ones coming from petrochemical”, explains Prof. Sousa. Unfortunately, efforts to develop FDCA-based products are scattered in individual activities, and joint effort between Academy and Industry are rare.

Therefore, the stakes for the COST’s network are high. Firstly, to identify solutions to successfully introduce FDCA-based products on the market. Secondly, to provide an open platform for collaboration and a common vision addressing research, human resources qualification and industrial implementation. Moreover, FUR4sustain is trying to achieve a paradigm shift in the plastic Industry by introducing environmental-friendly furan alternatives.

The new route of furans: degradable vs recyclable

To fully address sustainability all along furans’ chain of value, FUR4sustain is bringing together players with specific expertise: biomass and chemicals, organic and polymers chemistry, polymers physics or composite specialists for instance. “We also have participants trained to do specific characterisations which are important for polymers’ application”, explains Prof. Andreia Sousa, “For example, if you want to produce film polymers used in food packaging, you have to know the barrier properties to oxygen, carbon dioxide or water because it will influence the product’s safety”. FUR4sustain is trying to find a new “greener” route for the production of polymers by including sustainable parameters along the whole chain of value. With a sustainable rational for development, the Action is searching for alternatives to prepare FDCA chemicals and much more. “We want to develop other routes which use different kind of sources like biomass made of lignocellulose wastes”, explains Prof. Sousa.

Today, there are two main different approaches to tackle sustainability in polymers. On the one hand making biodegradable plastics out of biomass furans instead of petrol-based plastics, or, on the other hand, working specifically on the products’ end of life: recycling. “We are working on product recycling that will hopefully provide some interesting solutions”, explains Prof. Sousa. “As a citizen, I am convinced that reducing our use of plastic is necessary. But as a chemist I also believe that we can do better with plastic products that we still need. The product’s end of life should not be neglected”. The question is trickier than it seems as one solution – degradable vs recyclable – is not necessarily better than the other but depends on the product’s final use. “We can prepare FDCA polymers that are degradable or not. For those that are not, we are working on recycling. The most sustainable route is not always bio-degradable products when you consider the chain of value as a whole”, adds Prof. Sousa.

Furans make science and Industry move together

The Action raised the interest of the private sector, with many Industries joining. Having Academia and Industry working together is a true challenge, especially in times of Covid-19 when meeting people face to face was impossible, and even harder when acquaintance had not been made, a point raised by Prof. Sousa: “The challenge for the Action was to have people speaking the same language and finding channels of interest for all. Industry is very protective of its knowledge. So, it is very challenging to have people working together, Industry with Academia, but surprisingly, Industry with Industry as well, due to existing competitive interests.”.

The FUR4sustain Action kicked off in November 2019 has the participation of more than 50 institutions from across Europe as well as near neighbour countries such as Tunisia. “The best for me is to see that science and Industry are moving together as a result of the Action’s networking activities to achieve a furan sustainable polymer and a furan sustainable future”, concludes Prof. Andreia Sousa.

Additional information

View the Action website

View the Action network  

Further readings on related topics:

European scientists unite to shape the future of food packaging

The active participation of SMEs in COST Actions

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