A significant part of the above tonnage is being processed in Lestrem, a non-assuming village in the north of France. Not only is this factory the largest of its kind in Europe, it also turns out the world’s most diversified range of products, the company claims. Again, these end of half products are used in foods, feed, farma and other nutritional products. Roughly 80 per cent of Roquette’s turn over (3,1 billion euro per annum) is generated by these applications. The other 20 per cent are non-food applications in the chemical/industrial domain.
One of these interesting applications is isosorbide. Roquette has been producing this chemical compound for years, mostly for applications in pharma. However, the company also saw possibilities for isosorbide as a
component for superior polymers/materials. The origin for isosorbide is glucose, a byproduct from starch processing. Roquette transforms glucose into sorbitol by adding hydrogen and subsequently removing the water
molecules from the sorbitol molecules by adding sulfuric acid. The end product is isosorbide at a 98 per cent purity, which is insufficient for polymer production purposes. Roquette further purifies this product to a 99,5 per cent grade. The step is clearly visible: the 98 percent product is yellowish, the 99,5-one is like water.
Smart phone screen
Isosorbide for material purposes has various routes. It can be added to PET to make PEIT, by which the ‘i’ (isosorbide) ensures better performance in terms of heat and mechanical resistance and optical properties. Reycling of PEIT in PET-streams is possible, says Roquette. However, this end-of-life discussion is not top of the agenda in the industry. First and foremost, the performance characteristics count. This is also the case with isosorbide-based materials replacing polycarbonate, for example in touch screens of consumer electronics. Roquette and Mitsibishu have developed Durabio, a biopolycarbonate which is being used by Sharp Electronics in of its smart phone models. Durabio has superior qualities, for example in UV- resistance, optical performance, surface hardness, compared to PC. An added bonus is that biopolycarbonate does not need bisfenol-A as an additive, which makes it attractive as a food packaging (no fears of migration, ed.).
Other possibilities/routes are the use of isosorbide as a platform chemical for divinylether, epoxy resins or isocyanates or as a PU-replacement in products such as shoes, skates or ski goggles.
Market estimates blurry
In 2013, Roquette officially opened its current isosorbide plant in Lestrem: production capacity 20.000 tonnes per annum. The company previously built a smaller plant in 2007 (1000 tonnes per annum) and a larger one in 2011 (5000 tonnes per annum).
At the moment, the combined capacity of the largest and the mid-sized plant is 25 kTon. When asked how big the world wide isosorbide-market (the high purity grade, ed.) is, Roquette-officials are hesitant. It would be fair to say that this market does not exceed the 25 kTon-mark, given the fact that Roquette is the only supplier that is able to purify on a larger scale. The company also does not want to disclose price levels, as compared to fossil-based plastics. Admittedly, its performance characteristics could warrant a certain premium, it only depends on how big the ‘gap’ is.
In Northern France, to be precise in Lille, a public/private partnership has been established to stimulate innovation in the bio-economy. IFMAS (Institut Français des Matériaux Agro-Sourcés) has been active for 2 years and is running on a budget of roughly 50 million euros until 2019. Roquette is one of the partners and a big contributor to the R&D-budget. Other partners are INRA, Matikem, the University of Lille, Mäder and Mines Douai.
The focus of IFMAS is on feedstocks which are common to North-Western Europe, such as cereals. Given Roquette influence, R&D-efforts are based on starch and functional molecules and /or engineered polymers derived from starch. These halfproducts would be suitable for various applications in sectors such as paints, coatings, construction, medical and electronics. According to a representative of IFMAS, sugars from food products or woody biomass will be on the R&D-agenda at a later stage.