Changing the Chemistry of Plastics


For the last four years, Heartland – a Detroit-based company founded by Tim Almond – has been working to perfect a natural fiber product it calls Imperium that replaces synthetic materials in plastic, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of plastic by up to 50%. This natural material is hemp fiber, and the company has partnered with farmers in Michigan and across the Midwest to integrate it into their existing crop rotations, which then can increase profits for the farmers, and enhance the soil. With funding from BASF business incubator Chemovator’s Elevate program, Heartland is commercially producing the product and is ready to deploy it in the reusable packaging industry, followed by the automotive and construction industries. SBN Detroit talked to Almond about the product and its impact on sustainability. Q: Tell us about Heartland.  A: Heartland is a material science company based in Detroit that leverages natural fibers to help companies reduce their carbon footprint while solving the challenges of the big three sustainability missions – environment, social, and economic, without compromising product performance. The fun part is that on the product side, we get to work with the local farming community to increase their revenue per acre and increase soil health as we help manufacturing groups make better products that are better for the environment. Heartland was born out of a passion for problem-solving and sustainability. Q: How exactly do you impact and work with the farming community in terms of sustainability? A: The farming community is going through a very difficult time right now. The two major crops in Michigan, corn and soybean, are seeing a tight income situation because the value of the crops is low but the cost of chemicals and seeds is high. Profit for farmers is all but nonexistent. Hemp fiber production is a great rotational crop within corn and soybean and drives premium income per acre while improving the soil through micronutrients. The third most popular crop in Michigan is wheat, and here, we are capitalizing on underutilized land. Typically, this land sits empty from midsummer to spring, but hemp fiber grows quickly so they can grow a crop after the wheat has been harvested. We are seeing organic matter improvements in soil and aeration which lead to better production of future crops. We truly believe hemp fiber could be a staple crop in Michigan and across the U.S. Q: How many farms in Michigan are involved today? A: We work with ten or so farms in Michigan and several other states. Q: What is the process of developing the Imperium product? A: Hemp fiber is planted densely and grows to be eight to 12 feet tall. It is then cut down and treated so it’s protected from the high temperature of plastic manufacturing. Once it gets in the plastic it looks and functions exactly like plastic. So essentially the Imperium product line is made from one ingredient – hemp fiber. In the future, there are opportunities to use other natural fibers that could add value to the plastics and rubber used in the manufacturing space. Q: How do Imperium products mix with plastic to create a better end product? A: Imperium is not a finished product, it is an ingredient in the final product, being plastic. Much like making a cake, you use flour, sugar, baking powder, etc. So in making plastic, there are materials added that when combined, make the final product. Today, ingredients such as glass fiber and impact modifiers are used, as are other materials that increase the plastic’s carbon footprint. Imperium replaces large portions of the bad products with natural fiber. We can shave off 30% to 40% of the product’s carbon footprint by swapping some ingredients. It’s like eliminating sugar from your cake recipe but still enjoying the sweet flavor.     Q: How did your team achieve the development of and engineering behind the products? A: A lot of failure. Trial and error. It took time to figure out what works. In many cases, the fact that we did not have the proper resources and funding gave us time and space to get it right. If we had funding three years ago, we probably would have purchased the wrong equipment. So we had to be creative with our processes, and we finally landed on a method that works with extreme efficiency. Q: Where are products deployed commercially and in what industries? A: We are commercially able to produce master batch technology for three areas of the marketplace – automotive, construction, and reusable packaging. For the auto market, think exterior components, car handles, and roof racks. Reusable packaging is our bread and butter. This consists of bins, totes, and pallets – things used to move materials in a warehouse. We are working with about 100 groups on the product development now. In the reusable packaging space, we are in the final stages of integrating into their commercial lines. These lines move hundreds of millions of pounds so it’s a meticulous process to implement. The auto industry involves a three to five-year lifecycle, but we do have an opportunity for next year’s product model. This is undefined as of today though. In the construction industry, we are in the middle stages of creating opportunities. Q: What global brands are you working with? A: Some are confidential at this time. But we work heavily with BASF and their Ultramid B Nylon 6 product, which is on every vehicle in the world. There is an opportunity for tremendous growth. Q: Creating partnerships with larger companies appears to be one strategy that you have. How does that work and do companies have equity stakes? A: In the chemical marketplace there are producers and processors who work with distributors as partners to expand sales capacity. We are taking a similar approach in that regard. Q: How is Heartland supported by BASF Chemovator? A: The investment came from Chemovator which is BASF’s incubation and seed funding arm, and with their venture capital investments

Gulay Serhatkulu, Setting the Right Priorities for a Climate Neutral and Circular Future


SBN Detroit interviews Dr. Gulay Serhatkulu, BASF Senior Vice President of Performance Materials North America. This business encompasses the entire materials know-how of BASF regarding innovative, customized plastics under one roof and is globally active in four major industry sectors – transportation, construction, industrial applications, and consumer goods. Serhatkulu joined BASF in 2006 as a technical service representative. She has held a variety of roles with increasing responsibility within BASF including product management, marketing, sales, strategy, and most recently procurement. Before BASF, she earned two postdoctoral appointments at the University of Nottingham, UK, and Wayne State University, respectively. Serhatkulu shares with us some insights on the projects, goals, and challenges she leads every day. Q: What is involved in your role in leading the sustainability team at BASF in the North American region? A: Plastics do have proven benefits during their use phase – for example, preservation of food loss, lightweight construction of vehicles, and building insulation. Plastic waste, however, and in particular plastic waste in the context of marine littering, is perceived as a major global challenge. There is also increasing regulatory pressure regarding recycling quota and recyclability on the one hand and strong commitments of our customers towards increasing the share of recycled material in their offerings on the other hand. Solving these challenges requires innovation and joint efforts globally across the value chain. A team across BASF has taken up this challenge and developed the ChemCycling™ project which focuses specifically on transforming plastic waste into a raw material using pyrolysis, a thermochemical process. The raw material can be fed into the existing assets to create new chemical products with excellent product performance based on recycled plastic waste. Besides ChemCycling, BASF offers other mass-balanced chemical or advanced recycling solutions based on different post-consumer and post-industrial feedstocks. In this case, the recycled feedstock is not a pyrolysis oil and is introduced as an intermediate during the manufacturing process and not at the very beginning as is the case of pyrolysis oil. Chemical recycling represents an exciting business opportunity for us and our customers, as the resulting products are of equal quality to the products derived from fossil feedstock. Nevertheless, many technical, economic, and regulatory questions have to be answered but we are eager to work on it and optimistic that we can cope with all challenges. Q: What are you currently working on in terms of sustainability for BASF? A: One great example is the BASF and Steelcase collaboration on the brand’s new Flex Perch Stool, which has sustainability and circularity at the forefront of its design. This is the first furniture product for Steelcase that uses plastics derived from a chemical or advanced recycling process. The stool is made with BASF’s Ultramid® B3EG6 Ccycled™, an injection moldable polyamide (nylon) 6 that utilizes material from a waste stream generated during electronics production and is a one-for-one replacement for the 100% fossil-derived plastics. I cannot stress enough the importance of value chain partnership to achieve these types of major breakthroughs. From a lightweight perspective, I can also point to a collaboration with Toyota on their Sienna.  We also work with footwear companies to provide plastic and foam materials that have sustainability benefits such as being bio-based and recyclable. The new Sienna generation first-of-its-kind third-row free-standing seat backs. We also have efforts for Climate protection. Climate change and global warming are among the most pressing challenges of our time. On our journey toward climate neutrality, we have set ourselves ambitious goals and are striving worldwide to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. At the heart of the long-term transition toward net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 is the use of new technologies, which will replace fossil fuels such as natural gas with electricity from renewable sources. Additionally, we engage our suppliers in our ambition to serve our customers with the lowest carbon footprint materials possible. In our Supplier CO2 Management Program, we first aim to achieve transparency on the product-related CO2 emissions of our purchased raw materials. In this phase, we offer our support and share our knowledge on Product Carbon Footprint valuation methodologies and tools with our suppliers. Q: What are your longer-term goals there? A: We want to live up to our purpose: We create chemistry for a sustainable future. We are only successful if our products, solutions, and technologies add value to society. Therefore, we want to make a positive impact on society and safeguard our planet. To drive the sustainability transformation, we focus on three key topics: Climate change, Circular Economy, and a safe and sustainable portfolio. We are striving worldwide to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Q: What are the challenges you face? A: I see two main challenges. First, new technologies like electrically heated crackers, electric steam generation, carbon capture, and storage technologies need to be developed to achieve our targets. Some of these will take time to develop and they will first need to be piloted before being scaled up. Second, we need a supportive and enabling regulatory framework if the transformation is to succeed. Q: From your perspective, what role does BASF as a business play in terms of sustainability for the surrounding community? A: We measure the overall impact of economic, environmental, and social aspects of our business activities with our Value to Society methodology. We take sustainable use of water and preserving biodiversity seriously. Our global target is to implement sustainable water management at all production sites in water stress areas and our connected sites by 2030. We periodically investigate our production sites around the world to revise which are located near internationally protected areas. We connect with external stakeholders and networks to discuss our sustainability strategy. One local example is Fighting Island. Owned by BASF, Fighting Island is a 1,500-acre island on the Canadian side of the Detroit River in LaSalle, Ontario. The island was historically used for storage of lime tailings, a byproduct of soda ash production, in settling beds. Since closing the settling beds in 1982, BASF’s efforts have led to native revegetation and reforestation to help prevent erosion, reduce dust, increase wildlife habitat, control runoff, and enhance