Sustainable Energy

How fermentation can turn plants into plastic

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Turning plants into plastic

Fermentation: a process that has been used by humans for thousands of years to produce everything from beer to surströmming, a herring dish that has the dubious reputation as the world's most pungent food.

But now, one French company is hoping to use fermentation to transform renewable sources such as biomass into plastic.

"We've worked on a bacteria, Escherichia coli, and this bacteria allows us to create enzymes that normally don't exist," Frédéric Pâques, CTO of Global Bioenergies, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy. "These enzymes allow the transformation of a sugar, glucose for example, into isobutene," he added.

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Isobutene is part of the gaseous olefins family, described by Global Bioenergies as being, "key molecules at the heart of the petrochemical industry." Other gaseous olefins include propylene, butadiene and ethylene. A range of materials – from plastics to rubber – can be derived from these olefins.

Global Bioenergies say that the gaseous olefins produced from their process are identical to ones produced from fossil oil.

Currently, Global Bioenergies uses renewable sources such as sugar and cereals to produce the gaseous olefins, and it is hoped that in the future everything from agricultural waste to wood chips and straw will be used.

The potential of the company's work is endless, according to Marc Delcourt, CEO of Global Bioenergies.

"The process makes a bridge between the agricultural world in the larger sense, and the petrochemical industry," he said. "It allows us to produce hydrocarbons, petrol kerosene, diesel, plastics and other products in a different way," he added.

In November 2014 the company carried out a trial production run of isobutene at its industrial pilot plant near Reims, in the north east of France.

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The flexibility of the system being developed by Global Bioenergies is also key, according to Delcourt.

"Industrial biology can work well in decentralized sites, you can organize factories of small size," he said. "These factories can be placed in agricultural zones, so that the agricultural produce around them can be used," he added.