EcoSynthetix is making starch-derived nanoparticles that are replacing such oil-based consumer products as paper coatings.
By Tyler Irving
Few companies exemplify the shift from oil-based products to ones based on renewable biomass better than Ontario’s EcoSynthetix. This start-up has created a cost-competitive, green replacement for the oil-based latex coating that gives the glossy sheen to coated paper and paperboard products — a multi-billion dollar market. In the past year, EcoSynthetix raised $100 million in an initial public offering, opened new headquarters and a research and development office in Burlington, Ont. and hosted a tour for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. ACCN spoke with EcoSynthetix CEO John van Leeuwen about the company’s recent success and plans for the future.
ACCN How are paper coatings made today?
JVL Currently, coatings are produced using a batch-based emulsion polymerization process. Sub-micron particles of oil-derived styrene butadiene (SB) latex dispersed in water are mixed with pigments such as ground calcium carbonate and clay. The latex increases the viscosity of the mixture, binds it together and allows it to fill the recesses in the paper, providing a more uniform surface.
The reason people coat paper is to improve its surface characteristics and to make it smoother to print on. It allows pigment particles to adhere to the fibrous paper structure and improves the overall optical properties: whiteness, brightness, opacity and gloss.
ACCN How did you create a starch-based replacement for SB latex?
JVL Starch is a pretty good binder by itself but it has a high molecular weight. It’s a solution polymer, not an emulsion polymer. And native starch is not soluble in cold water, so to use it in conjunction with SB latex you need to heat it up. If you cook it, you disturb the starch granules, dissolve the polymer into water and you get something that’s fairly high in viscosity. This can be mixed with SB latex for certain paper grades. It has been done for many years but only in lower grades of paper: Grade 3, which is the typical coloured sheet cover for most magazines; Grade 4, used for the inside pages of magazines and Grade 5, which is for newspaper inserts and flyers. Grades 1 and 2 don’t use any starch at all, nor is it used in the production of coated paperboard. Grade 1 is the highest-quality paper grade, typically used for annual reports and the covers of expensive magazines. Grade 2 paper is used typically in high-end marketing materials.
(L to R) EcoSynthetix CEO John van Leeuwen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Burlington MP Mike Wallace examine dry EcoSpheres during a tour last December of EcoSynthetix’s headquarters and research facility.
ACCN So this is what you’ve targeted?
JVL Yes. We invented a reactive extrusion process to convert starch from a somewhat soluble polymer into these insoluble particles, ranging in size from 50 to 150 nm. It’s a chemical and a mechanical process. The particles are no longer a solution polymer, but behave essentially as an emulsion polymer; furthermore, they have unique new properties that are more akin to synthetic latex products. We’ve created a new class of materials that we call biolatex, a registered trademark, which allows us to replace the remaining SB latex in all paper grade and paperboard grades.
With our process, we make our final product into a dried powder, the granules of which are agglomerates of these nanoparticles. A typical 400 micron granule of powder might contain millions of them. Because you can ship it as a dried powder instead of a water-based emulsion, it greatly decreases the carbon footprint and cost of shipping the product relative to traditional latex binders that may only contain about 50 per cent solids. When this powder arrives on site, you put the granules in water and stir them. They disperse into nanoparticles under almost any conditions. The dispersed nanoparticles swell in size and, once they’re soft, can be used in a customer’s paper coating process.
ACCN Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
JVL People have been extruding starch for a long time for wallpaper pastes or drilling muds for the oil industry. But no one until now found the right set of conditions to turn starch into nanoparticles. Typically, people are simply dissolving the starch, turning it from a solid paste into a liquid. The unique set of conditions under which we developed our process was difficult to ascertain. The process to do it on large scale was even more difficult to develop. Most importantly is that we’ve converted it from a batch process to a continuous process. The breakthrough is both in the chemistry and the mechanics of doing it. It was challenging but we succeeded in creating a final product that had the desired performance characteristics and was economical.
ACCN Who made the breakthrough and how did you turn it into a company?
JVL Our co-founder and executive vice-president Steven Bloembergen and I both studied chemistry at the University of Waterloo. We went our own ways but stayed friends. In 1996, we met up again. Steven had an idea for a company that would make biopolymers that were better for the environment. So we built from this initial concept and started the company together.
I provided the funding to start the research. At the time, Steven was working at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute (MBI) and they had labs, pilot plants and offices. It was a perfect setting for us, so we did the initial research there. In 2010, we started talking with the Michigan and Ontario governments. We got a much better response from the Ontario and federal governments. So we decided that long-term, it would be better to be in Canada and continue our fundamental R & D and product development efforts in Ontario.
ACCN What is the company like today?
JVL Two years ago, we had 10 staff. By the end of 2011, we had 40. We’ll continue to explore the paper and paperboard markets and other unrelated areas where our biolatex binders can bring value. We aim to have about 60 people in the next few years. Recently we opened a new, 34,000 square-foot facility in Burlington. It has our headquarters and labs for product development, coating testing and paper testing. It also contains a pilot plant, a beautiful facility for producing new biolatex products. That will be used to develop new grades of biolatex materials for different industry applications.
Commercially, we have operations in two partner plants today, one in Tennessee and another in the Netherlands. We have a combination of contract and toll manufacturing, as well as an ability to expand.
ACCN Is your biolatex competitive with SB latex?
JVL Price-wise, we have a very competitive technology. As we replace SB latex, we are finding that we can replace other chemicals that are required to go along with it: emulsion modifiers, optical brighteners, rheology modifiers (thickeners) and water retention aids. Because SB latex is hydrophobic, you need to use surfactants as well as water retention aids that hold on to the water. You don’t have to do that with our family of biolatex binders. It is a disruptive technology, in addition to being cost competitive.
ACCN What kind of starch do you use?
JVL Almost any kind: corn, potato, tapioca, or wheat starch. There are also some waste starches available and we will focus more on that in the future. In both our current locations, corn starch is readily available so we’re using that. As we get ready to put a plant in Asia or Latin America, for example, we could use something like tapioca starch.
ACCN What are the challenges in getting paper coaters to adopt this new technology?
JVL Manufacturers in developing countries seem more willing to experiment. We launched in 2007 and got our first customer in the first quarter of 2008: Suzano, the largest paper coater in Brazil. Seventy per cent of the paper industry is now evaluating this technology and many companies have adopted it. We have customers today in seven different countries, including North America, Asia and Europe. If you look at the paper industry, the global top 10 provide more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply. Three of those top 10 are commercial with us and 10 of the top 20 are conducting trials.
EcoSpheres are nanoparticles made of interwoven starch polymer chains, ranging in size from 50 to 150 nm. These particles thicken and bind the coating that makes paper surfaces smooth and shiny, replacing oil-based latex.
ACCN Do you expect your product will completely replace SB latex?
JVL While SB may be near the end of its life cycle, it is a very good product that does its job perfectly. The beauty is that our biolatex binders are compatible with the existing traditional binders, so rather than have to come up with a perfect solution, you can do a partial replacement. We started out two years ago with 25 per cent replacement. Now we’re up to, on average, 50 per cent. In the next few years we expect to get to a much higher percentage of SB substitution, probably 75 to 90 per cent. It’s a question of reaching all the properties that the SB latex has; we still need to improve to get to 100 per cent substitution rates.
ACCN A lot has happened in the last year. What’s it been like for you personally?
JVL It’s been a crazy roller coaster ride. I often tell my guys, make sure your seatbelts are on tight, because this is going to be exciting!
Photo Credit: EcoSynthetix
Want to share your thoughts on this article? Write to us at email@example.com