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Q&A: DuPont Sorona and the Evolution, and Revolution, of Biomaterials

August 15 2018
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Mike Saltzberg, sat down with Sustainable Brands to discuss the evolution of biomaterials and products like Sorona®. Read a preview of the interview below and check out the full story on Sustainable Brands here!

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Over his more than 30 years in the business, Mike Saltzberg has seen firsthand how sustainability has grown to be of equal consideration with technical performance and cost in the development of new biomaterials. Saltzberg is the Global Business Director for Biomaterials at DuPont Industrial Biosciences, the team that ideates and develops products derived from bio-based materials. Among their innovations is DuPont™ Sorona®, a partially plant-based fiber increasingly used in apparel and carpet. We spoke with Saltzberg to learn more about the evolution of biomaterials and products such as Sorona®.

Throughout your 30+-year career at DuPont, with the last 12 being involved with Biomaterials, how has your work evolved as sustainability gained more traction as a global priority? What do you see as the biggest levers to create change in the materials science space?

Mike Saltzberg: It used to be that people would always talk about technical performance and cost whenever they were thinking about a new material, and sustainability was sort of a nice-to-have or compliance mandatory because of regulations. It's come to the point now where the sustainability of a material - where it comes from, how it's made, what its end-of-life scenarios are - has become at least of equal importance to technical performance and cost.

For us, dialling in sustainability has become much more important as time's gone on. As materials suppliers, we can affect broad ranges in multiple industries. We can have a big impact because our customers, who are making the products that consumers or industry want to buy, are counting on us to bring them more sustainable materials that will still work in their processes. We have a role to play in bringing out more sustainable materials that also have high performance that can meet the customer's needs.

This project that we're known for, DuPont Sorona - we started working on that more than 20 years ago. So, this thought process has been around at DuPont for quite some time. If you're starting with something really innovative, to research the idea and get it through to the market takes time.

DuPont™ Sorona® is made up of 37 percent annually renewable plant-based ingredients - can you walk us through the process of how it is made?

MS: Like many polymers, Sorona is made of two different chemicals that are reacted together to form the material itself. One of those is a monomer - a traditional chemical that's used in making lots of other kinds of plastic. For example, the PET that's in polyester fabrics or water and soda bottles - one of the chemicals is essentially identical to that. But the other one is called bio-PDO - a chemical we make through a fermentation process. To make beer, you feed live yeast some sugar and it turns that sugar into alcohol; our process uses a different microorganism and we feed it corn sugar. Then we take that bio-PDO, purify it and react it together with another chemical to form a polymer called DuPont Sorona.

The beginning of the bio-PDO process was commercialized in October of 2006, and the Sorona business kicked off in January of 2007. So, we've been around now for about 11-and-a-half years. It's a fantastic polymer that has some really nice properties. For example, Sorona makes a carpet that's super soft and resilient and has built-in stain resistance that doesn't require any chemicals on the surface. In apparel, it gives some of the garments stretch, similar to what you can do with spandex but a little bit different; a lot of softness, a lot of comfort. It was a difficult and expensive process to make both of the chemicals that are required to make it from petroleum. So, using this natural process from a renewable intermediate is not only more environmentally friendly, it's also more effective and lower cost.

How do you see sustainability, product performance and innovation interacting when it comes to materials development?

MS: A lot of times in the biomaterials space, customers are asked to compromise. They're told, "Here's a product that doesn't work quite as well as the one made from petroleum, but it's natural or it's made from renewable resources. It doesn't have the same technical performance, but you should use it anyway because the process is better." Or, "Here's a material that can do what you want it to do and has a better sustainability profile, but it's substantially more expensive." Our belief is that's not going to work.

We're trying to have significant impact. We don't just want to have niche, little products for those with higher income. We try to come up with solutions that first and foremost, have fantastic technical performance that will sell based on that. There's a knock on biomaterials that they're worse-performing, but ours are not; Sorona is a better polymer [than its petroleum-based alternative]. There also has to be a cost point that if it is a little bit more, the value has to be there so that the product sells itself.

For us, sustainability is now table stakes. We're not ever going to bring out a new material that doesn't, for example, have a better life cycle analysis (LCA) and a responsible end-of-life story. All of the materials that we bring out at DuPont Biomaterials have a substantially better LCA than the materials they replace and are either recyclable or biodegradable. That's how we approach it: Performance first and sustainability integrated, too. Otherwise, why are we spending the innovation to introduce a new material? If it's not better in all the dimensions, we shouldn't be bringing it to market.

It's been a great story for Sorona. It's been embraced by the market - and the business has grown. We'll be over $300 million this year in sales.

...To read the full article, please check it out on Sustainable Brands here.

Tagged: Sustainable Brands Sorona Biomaterials Saltzberg
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