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‘Such a thing doesn't exist,’ UvA researchers Gadi Rothenberg and Albert Alberts repeatedly heard when they accidentally discovered 100% bioplastic in 2010. Now ten years later, in collaboration with furniture manufacturer VepaDrentea, they have created a chair made entirely from plant-based materials.

Gadi Rothenberg and Albert Alberts in the lab

It all started ten years ago when chemist Gadi Rothenberg, professor of Heterogeneous Catalysis and Sustainable Chemistry at the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences at the UvA, was looking for a biofuel for aircraft together with his colleague Albert Alberts. The experiment failed again and again. Rothenberg: ‘The polymer always turned out to be soluble in warm water.’ The original experiment may have failed, but Rothenberg and Alberts immediately knew they had something special in their hands: a new polymer made from 100% bioplastic. ‘What we were left with was a viscous mass; I also call it ‘sticky mess’. This new bioplastic was 100% plant-based and biodegradable and it dissolved in water. We immediately patented it, because it was clear that it had exceptionally good properties,’ explains Rothenberg.

Bioplastic. Photo V.R. Calderone/UvA

Failure is the mother of success’
Although Rothenberg and Alberts could clearly see the potential, polymer experts did not believe them. ‘That can’t exist,’ they were frequently told. Their bioplastic had strange polymer properties that could not be theoretically explained. ‘But the then dean of the science faculty, Bart Noordam, saw the potential and gave us the confidence and freedom to develop this further.’ That is how the spin-off Plantics was born in 2014, allowing Rothenberg and Alberts to continue to build on their invention. Rothenberg: ‘What makes it special is that Albert, who in the past had collaborated with three different Nobel Prize winners, made such a great discovery near the end of his career - at the age of 63.’ Plantics now has more than twenty employees, working on developing various applications for the new polymer.

In recent years, Rothenberg and Alberts have developed their sticky mess into 100% biological thermoset resins, and the world's first thermoset biomaterials. Now, ten years later, the first market product is a fact.

Copyright: UvA
‘As I always say to my students: “Failure is the mother of success.” Scientific obstacles, getting funding, optimising prototypes - innovation takes time. Luckily it all led to success in our case.’ Gadi Rothenberg
The plant-based chair. Photo: VepaDrentea

Fully organic, plant-based and recyclable chair
The first product is a series of chairs that are completely bio-based and recyclable and made using plant-based glue. In order to turn the biomaterial into a high-quality seat, Plantics and VepaDrentea worked closely together for two years as part of the Biobased Resin Composites (BRECSIT) ISPT project. ‘It is fantastic that our discovery can now be turned into furniture,’ said Rothenberg. ‘Most furniture is held together by glues containing toxic chemicals. This chair isn’t, making it completely sustainable and safe for the environment.’ Hemp fibres served as the raw material to make the seat of the chair. The advantage of hemp is that it grows without fertilisers or pesticides, requires hardly any water and is grown all over the Netherlands. In addition, hemp is strong and it absorbs a lot of CO2. As a result, the chair's production has a negative CO2 footprint. This means that more CO2 is absorbed than emitted in the total production process.

Rothenberg can’t reveal much about what Plantics is currently doing. ‘The competition is fierce; we don't want to make our competitors any wiser. We are going to market it first.’

What he can say in conclusion is that there are many beautiful things to come. ‘You will soon find a few hundred thousand of our bio-based plant pots in garden centres, for example. These plant pots can simply go into the ground with the plant. Completely circular, which is great, because every carbon atom you throw away is a waste,’ Rothenberg concludes.