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Thomas Fischer is Chief Operating Officer with the biotechnology company AVA Biochem in Muttenz.
Thomas Fischer of Ava Biochem. (Img: i-net/BaselArea.swiss)
In the i-net interview he explains how biomass sugar and water can be converted into the long sought-after molecule 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF) and what opportunities the molecule offers. Fischer also explains why the Infrapark Baselland in Muttenz is an ideal location and presents the future plans of AVA Biochem.
The homepage of AVA Biochem talks of “chemicals originating from biomass” – how did this come about? What kinds of biomass does the company work with?
Thomas Fischer*: AVA Biochem is basically a subsidiary of AVA-CO2, based in Zug. This company began with hydrothermal carbonization – the recycling of waste products into bio-carbon. This is a source of energy that is easy to store and transport. The basic principles of the technology were already described by Professor Friedrich Bergius in 1913, and it then lay idle and unused for decades. In 2009, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology took a closer look at the process and recognized the potential of the technology. The initial idea was to convert spent grain from breweries into bio-carbon and to re-use this for process energy. AVA CO2 is still active in this field today and now converts sewage sludge into a source of energy. AVA Biochem was founded in 2011 with the sole aim of adapting the technology to allow the economical and scalable production of 5-HMF. The molecule 5-HMF is a substance that forms sugars, especially fructose, during hydrolysis and offers a diverse range of uses. The intention from the outset was that AVA Biochem should carry the “Swiss Made” label. We have entered into a commitment to the founders, shareholders and the board of directors to use Swiss technology at a Swiss site and to source the raw material fructose exclusively from Europe. The ideal location for this project was found in Muttenz. Within just two years, we have taken the development the original technology from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology further and scaled up from laboratory tests to its present size.
How should we think of the conversion process from sugar to 5-HMF?
The basic technology is a hydrothermal process. You can think of it as a steam cooker, which provides the right conditions of increased pressure and temperature for the molecule 5-HMF to form from the biomass fructose, together with water. Think of the reaction as a mountain that you cycle up. After you reach the top and start rolling downhill without braking, you eventually arrive in the bio-carbon valley. To obtain the highly reactive molecule 5-HMF, you have to brake abruptly in the middle of the steepest downhill section and stop the reaction. Our specialists in Muttenz have developed this technology and adapted it so that we can precisely steer the reaction. Today a further speciality of AVA lies in the purification and separation of substances that are not wanted in 5-HMF. The result of this is a robust, highly scalable and economically interesting technology that constitutes the missing link between renewable resources and large-scale chemical applications. For this reason the technology will also establish itself on the market. We have managed this thanks to a little luck, the extraordinary skills of the team and a lot of perseverance.
Where could 5-HMF be used?
What we originally had in mind was the fine chemicals market, where the molecule could be used in research, the food and pharmaceutical sectors or in dietetic remedies. But this market is only developing very slowly, because the products in particular require a lot of time for development. Since 5-HMF can be used as an intermediate product in economical and large-scale chemical production of the bio-based polymer polyethylene furanoate (or PEF for short), new markets have opened up for us. PEF is a plastic with major performance advantages in gas and water tightness, as well as improved temperature behaviour compared with oil-based PET, for example. PEF also has the advantage of weighing less than PET. Such substances are especially sought after in the packaging industry, the tyre industry and in the healthcare industry. The potential is enormous, and we already have the world’s largest 5-HMF plant here in Muttenz, with a capacity of 300 tonnes of 5-HMF in aqueous solution or 20 tonnes in crystalline form.
So products with better properties can be produced with 5-HMF. But is an argument for your product not also that it is produced from renewable resources?
We do indeed operate in the area of renewable resources and can thus contribute to a better world to a certain extent. We can obtain 5-HMF from both conventional first-generation sugar and also sugar from wood or from the sugar in waste products. But our goal is informed not so much by any ecological idea, even though this is certainly an argument for possible buyers of our 5-HMF, because it cannot be efficiently produced from crude oil. Our primary aim is to establish an economical process and in the medium term launch a product on the market that is successful.
You use one type of sugar as raw material – is it only possible with this type of sugar?
Basically yes, because the crucial factor is what the sugar is obtained from. Initially we treated wood chips or chicory roots in our reactor to obtain the product. The problem is that there are a great many additional products in these substances, so – in order to speed up the process and make it more efficient – we decided to use fructose directly. At some stage we hope to develop the technology further, so that any biomass can be converted into 5-HMF.
But the process is eco-friendlier because it works with renewable resources, isn’t it?
That’s true. We don’t work with solvents that are harmful to the environment or with problematic or toxic catalysts – unlike our competitors in this field, who mostly have to work with solvents for large-scale industry. Our process takes place in water. Only when we want to obtain 5-HMF crystals for the specialty and fine chemicals market do we use a solvent, which we recover and recycle. But the crystals are not our main objective. Even in a large plant for the polymer industry we will keep the entire cycle in water.
How does AVA Biochem protect its know-how?
We use patents and internal secrecy. There are parts that are very important for us and for upscaling. Here we have process patents and also a primary patent for the separation. Patents constitute a certain currency for start-ups, but we also have to protect our know-how. Our art lies in kinetics and process control, and these are subject to internal secrecy.
Why is the Infrapark Baselland in Muttenz the ideal location for AVA Biochem?
When AVA-CO2 was looking for a suitable location for the development and production of 5-HMF, the quickest option was to rent space in an “infra park”. The Infrapark Baselland offered us the ideal conditions: security is guaranteed, permits are granted promptly, there are meeting rooms, logistics are available and a canteen is also not to be sniffed at. If we had built everything from scratch, we would have lost one to two years. We could start work here from day one. We also received support from people who in some cases had already worked in the chemical industry for decades – that helped a lot. And Muttenz has another advantage: its good accessibility within Europe thanks to the close proximity of the airport, railways and the Rhine. And not least, in THE chemical region of Switzerland, you also find a great density of highly qualified specialists.
The Infrapark Baselland site was once home to Clariant. How well did the administration adjust to serving many different companies?
It adapted very well. At the start, of course, this situation was new for both parties; Clariant suddenly had to see how customers could be brought into the Infrapark. But it was and is always possible to talk with one another and find solutions together. We would definitely make the decision to come here again.
You are an economist yourself and are COO of the AVA Group today – how did you come to the chemical industry?
I knew Jan Vyskocil, one of the founders and now the CEO. We had already spoken about the company in 2009, but it was not yet the right time. My jobs had always been in general management and I had managed various organizations. Almost three years ago I started work with AVA Biochem to form a company out of a research and development operation. As COO I am responsible for the operational organization of the company, whether sales and marketing, engineering or the development of production sites in general.
How does your work in the chemical industry differ from other technical fields?
A business administration graduate does not have much feel for technology. Of course, I could never develop anything, but I have the good fortune to have been able to familiarize myself with technical fields. While chemistry was one of my favourite subjects in school, I had to learn once again that this is very much a world of its own. There is probably hardly any other field where there are so many variables in development as there are in chemistry. It may be that a successful experiment does not work a second time because – to put it figuratively – you had a fever and the reaction temperature was slightly different as a result. The complexity is vast, but for this reason also offers opportunities.
Despite the complexity, what motivates you in your work?
It is simply inspiring to build something that there has never been before – especially or perhaps all the more so for a non-chemist. I am absolutely convinced that this will be a success story and am happy to play my part.
What contribution can regional promotion of innovation make to the success?
Established companies can acquire knowledge and know-how. But innovation promotion can help start-up companies, although in the field of renewable chemistry I would like to see even more state support. In the Netherlands, for example, they have a much more aggressive approach to attract industries. Germany, too, provides state support to promote the development of whole regions. Networks are good for young companies when it comes to the marketing of a company or a product, but financial support could boost development and innovation. Financial advantages, especially for young companies, can be a reason for deciding for or against a particular location.
What are the next objectives of AVA Biochem?
The company should stay here in the region and become number one in the fine chemicals market. In addition, we must develop new markets such as the packaging segment. 5-HMF and our technology are the link between the renewable chemicals sector and Big Chem. So in the near future we will have to build a large-scale plant, but for this the close proximity of biomass will be important.
Where should AVA Biochem be in five to ten years?
Today the process belongs to AVA-CO2, while AVA Biochem is an internal licensee. In the longer term we are aiming to increase in size for Big Chem markets. There are two conceivable options here for us: to engage in joint ventures with other companies or to license out the technology. In addition, we are seeking to form an operational group and founded AVALON Industries AG in September 2015. The focus of this company is on the construction of the first large-scale plant to produce 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) from 5-HMF for renewable plastic. This new company is still based in Zug today, but should be allocated sites with plant facilities in the future.
Interview: Ralf Dümpelmann and Nadine Nikulski, i-net/BaselArea.swiss
*Thomas Fischer has extensive international experience and has held various general management positions in the industry and technology sectors, mainly in the areas of electrical, electronic and precision mechanics, as well as mechatronics, automation and software design. He started his career at Asea Brown Boveri. After 14 years at ABB mainly at ABB Sécheron SA in Geneva, he moved into the security and lock industry as CEO of Assa Abloy (Switzerland AG), formerly KESO AG, based in Richterswil, Switzerland.
Thomas Fischer was born in Berne and grew up in Brazil. He is married and has two children. He holds a degree from the University of St. Gallen in Business Administration (lic. oec. HSG). He speaks fluent German, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.