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Five Minutes With… Ludo Diels

Ludo Diels
Prof. Ludo Diels, Dr. in chemistry & biotechnology, works at the University of Antwerp, and is research manager Sustainable Chemistry for the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) in Mol, Belgium. He is responsible for the transition toward sustainable chemistry and clean technology. In this he is strongly involved in the set up of a biobased economy in Flanders and Europe, and the collaboration between Europe and India. He is a founding father of the Shared Research Centre on Bio-aromatics (BIORIZON), the BIG-C trilateral alliance with NordRhein Westfalia and the Vanguard Initiative. He integrates coping with global change and a forest-based economy into a new business plan.

Four Pillars of Wisdom III: Bioproducts Around Us

Our next interview in the Four Pillars series is with Professor Ludo Diels, advisory board member for the World BioEconomy Forum. Professor Diels is the head of the Bioproducts Around Us session at the Forum this year, and will be moderating the panel: Bio-based Alternatives for Materials.

Professor Diels is a doctor in chemistry and works at the University of Antwerp as research manager, sustainable chemistry for the Flemish Institute of Technological Research. He is also Vice Chair of public-private partnership SPIRE, the European Association committed to manage and implement the Processes4Planet partnership.

Bioproducts – those made from renewable resources and that are often able to be reused, recycled and finally biodegrade, have become essential ingredients of the circular bioeconomy. Can you comment on what progress you are seeing being made in bringing products to market?

Professor Diels: We have seen a lot of progress made over the years in the level of commercialisation of bio-based materials and biopolymers.

It all started very long time ago with cellulose-based materials (or let us say ‘paper-based materials’). It is largely accepted by society as people all understand that paper comes from trees. Besides cellulose-based materials there are also starch-based and protein-based materials of minor importance.

 

But now we see also a move toward aliphatic polyesters like PLA. PLA is classic plastic that we use already very regularly. Very recently, ‘finally’ I would say, we see a move toward PHA and its quality is still underestimated. And we see the movement toward other biodegradable plastics (mulching films) in agriculture.

On the other hand we see more and more bio-based PE and a start of PP with some potential to enter the recycling systems. And very interesting is the breakthrough of polyamide 11, a bio-based nylon made from castor oil that can be used in 3D-printing. This is of course perfect. We strive toward the use of sustainable feedstock, so bio-based, and to use less feedstock, so to move to additive manufacturing as in 3D-printing.

 

Further, and this is a real breakthrough, we see the movement toward bio-based aromatic molecules such as PET, PEF, polystyrenes etc. all with very good potential to become recycled. And I believe that the recycling of bio-based materials will become crucial in the defossilisation of our materials. The more we introduce bio-based materials in a recycling loop, the more we can move away from fossil-based materials to stop climate change. In this way we keep biobased carbon in the material loop and this will work as a carbon sink.

 

 

What do you see and the most prominent and interesting bioproducts emerging at the moment?

Professor Diels: To start with, certainly the new cellulose-based materials. We see a lot of innovations at the level of new cellulose-materials. Further all the materials I just mentioned.

From an environmental point of view the use of composite materials cannot be encouraged due to the fact that disassembly is nearly impossible. But I see that every material around me is becoming composite. So, either we ban composite materials by regulation because it is difficult to recycle, or we need to find a solution. And I think that a technical solution will be more easily accepted worldwide.

Composites are composed of different materials bound together by special glues/additives/adhesives. I see now that these additives and adhesives are developed in a bio-based way and more specifically from lignin, a residue from the pulp and paper industry. If we will be able to make bio-composites fully bio-based, it will be a step forward to full recycling and again avoiding the use of fossil-based materials.

 

On top I expect several performance improvements from these innovative bio-based materials. The next challenge will be to make these adhesives smart. This means allowing them to reverse their characteristics under certain conditions to enabling the composite to fall apart.   

You will be moderating the Bioproducts Around us panel in Brazil, what will be the focus of the discussion?

Professor Diels: We will start by making overviews of how smart managed forests and smart use of biomass in the world can create carbon sinks. We would like to pay attention to the right management including discussions on biodiversity and climate impact.  Then we will move to the real discussion on applications with bio-based materials in the automotive, textile, construction and packaging sectors, but also in the toys sector.

You will see that indeed the fact of being bio-based, either biodegradable or recyclable, will play an important role in the final breakthrough of these materials in the manufacturing industries.

So, in our session we will combine the process industry transforming biomass from agro-industry or forestry into materials that will be assembled by brand owners into products AND then back again into feedstock via recycling of new materials and products.

That is exactly what we as consumers are looking for: sustainable feedstocks and recycled materials. On top of this, bio-based materials will be less toxic and can in some cases perform better.

 We will particularly focus our discussion on materials that have a positive impact on climate, no negative effects on biodiversity, and that can be used in a circular economy without any toxic effect – and with a performance improvement.

That is really a big challenge. So, I hope to meet you all in person or virtual in Belém in October. 

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