Iris explains, ‘We're investigating whether we can recycle polymer waste material, mainly PET bottles, into a higher-grade material, basically "upcycling". We do this by adding bio-based material to this waste stream, then precisely adjusting the composition of the mixture. The result is a material that has more advanced properties and, consequently, is more lucrative. That material could then be processed into consumer goods, such as cars, carpets, packaging, or electronics. So we're creating options for an advanced product that is 100% sustainable, without using fossil raw materials. The use of bio-based materials is not unique in itself, nor is recycling PET bottles. What is unusual is to combine the two, because this is upcycling, rather than the far more common approaches of recycling or downcycling (i.e. to lower-grade materials).’
The BiCEPs project pools the market-and-tech knowledge of DSM, TU/e, Maastricht University (UM) and InSciTe. Francesca says, ‘We do polymerization testing at DSM. This provides input for the process models I work with at TU/e, enabling us to learn about the production process. In addition, the tests yield samples, which UM can test for their properties and quality.’ Iris: ‘InSciTe’s pilot plant at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus enables us to quickly investigate scale up. Once we have the initial results from the labs, we can translate them to an industrial setting. In addition, InSciTe adds value by acting as playmaker, overseeing everything, and connecting people.’
The biggest challenge facing the project is the waste stream, says Iris. ‘Whilst we expect enough polymer waste to be available, we do have to look at how good and consistent the quality is. This is generally an issue when it comes to circularity. It’s important to work out how we can handle the variability of the waste stream in the process, and how this impacts on the end product. Thus far, we're finding that the PET bottles people return to stores are a reasonably clean waste stream. I hope that in several years the project leads to advanced materials which may find their way to the market .’
Making a positive contribution to a circular, more sustainable economy is a key objective of the project, and an aim to which Francesca is personally committed. ‘Society has a significant interest in this project. We know the time is ripe for this, there's a clear need for it. I would be relieved and happy if we can get this project to the pilot plant and actually produce a bio-based, advanced circular material there. A cleaner world is something that matters greatly to me, so I think it's a valuable project to be involved in.’
Iris continues, ’It’s time for us as society to take a different view on plastics. Especially, it’s time to take responsibility at its end of use. People are more and more aware and change their behaviour towards reuse of materials. Our project shows there is value in collecting and then producing the next generation of plastics. Even though it’s not as valuable as gold, we should treat plastics with the same care. Then we can make a big difference.’
Iris Hilker obtained her PhD in chemistry in 2002, focusing on biocatalysis. After a post-doc fellowship at Université de la Méditerranée, France, she first joined DSM’s biocatalysis group in 2004 and worked in polymer chemistry Research and Development since 2006. She did projects on numerous material science related subjects, among others biobased materials. From 2017 on, she managed polycondensation projects.
Francesca Sgarbossa has obtained her master in Chemical and Process Engineering in 2018 where she has been working on upgrading crude lignin oils during her final project. In 2019 she enrolled in the Professional Doctorate in Engineering (PDEng) in the field of Process and Product Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology. During her PDEng she accomplished numerous design projects and also worked with the DSM team for the Biobased and Circular Engineering Plastics project at Chemelot InSciTe, where she managed the modeling of the PET depolymerization.