Michiel Dusselier and Bert Sels
A cheaper and greener process for producing bioplastics
Finalists for the European Inventor Award 2023
Lactic acid, the basic feedstock of PLA, is derived from natural resources such as sugar and wood chips. It must transform into lactide, which is then polymerised to form the PLA plastic. Traditional lactide synthesis involves a costly two-step process which also produces high levels of waste, making it difficult for PLA to compete against other plastics economically.
Dusselier and Sels’ invention reduces this process to just one step. Key to this process is H-Beta, a synthetic zeolite catalyst. Inside the pores of this catalyst, lactic acid molecules react directly to the desired lactide in one step with high purity at more than 100°C lower than the traditional method. This process saves energy, leaves a smaller carbon footprint and eliminates waste by reusing by-products and unused feedstock.
Birds of a feather
Dusselier is a tenured professor at KU Leuven in Belgium and has a BSc in engineering, an MSc in chemical engineering and another in chemical engineering: catalytic technology and a PhD in bioscience engineering. Sels has an MSc in bioscience engineering and a PhD in bioscience. Before selecting his PhD topic, Dusselier, an avid bird watcher, noticed albatrosses had died because of plastic in their stomachs. This observation motivated him to tackle plastic pollution, so he started his PhD research in bioengineering. Together with Sels, an expert in bio-based conversions of alternate feedstock, they focused on a PLA production method.
Their work attracted the attention of TotalEnergies and the refinery acquired the rights to the invention and later obtained the patent. Sels notes that partnering with industry helped the inventors sharpen their intellectual property strategy: “We realised that if we wanted to have a good patent, it was better to write it together with the company. They have much better knowledge of the constraints…rather than naively writing a patent yourself and not covering as much as you like to cover.”
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