Arsenal midfielder’s biochemical breakthrough

Arsenal midfielder’s biochemical breakthrough
Flamini (left) with business partner Pasquale Granata
Arsenal and France midfielder Mathieu Flamini has revealed that he is one of the people behind a bio-based company that has developed a process to produce levulinic acid on an industrial scale.

In an interview with the Sun on Sunday, the 31-year-old, who has played over 150 times for the club and has won the Italian league championship with AC Milan, said that his company GF Biochemicals has become the first in the world to mass produce the acid and enter a market that he says could be worth £20 billion.

Levulinic acid has been identified by the US Department of Energy as one of the top value-added chemicals that can be created from biomass and can be used to create biofuels, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, polymers and solvents, amongst other applications.

The company has developed a production process that will allow it to create a variety of ‘drop-in’ and substitute chemicals as well as biofuels for new and existing markets. It also hopes to expand its range of products in the future to include more high-value levulinic acid derivatives.

According to the company, the process allows a flexible feedstock from a range of biomass including wheat straw, wood, grass and cellulose from agricultural waste, and also produces formic acid and char, which is also recovered. 

Development of GF Biochemicals

After his first spell at the London club came to an end in 2008 with a transfer to AC Milan, Flamini met business partner Pasquale Granata and founded GF Biochemicals.

The company has been developing a cost-effective process for creating levulinic acid in its plant in the southern Italian city of Caserta, where it employs around 80 members of staff. The company also has offices in Milan and Geleen in the Netherlands, with another office planned for the United States.

Flamini, now back at Arsenal, claims to have spent millions of pounds funding the project, through research, setting up the plant and running trials.

This month, at the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy (EFIB), the company was awarded the John Sime Award for Most Innovative New Technology.

Commercial production began in the summer and when the Caserta plant is running at full capacity, which the GF Biochemicals hopes will be the case by 2017, the company says it will produce around 10,000 tonnes of levulinic acid a year.

‘Constant evolution for years’ led to industrial breakthrough

Flamini told the Sun: “We started with trials. Switch on the plant, switch it off all that at big cost, analyse the data, what’s working, what’s not, adapt, improve or change. It was constant evolution for years. Today we have several patents on levulinic acid. They give a real advantage. We are the first company – and the only one in the world – to produce levulinic acid on an industrial scale.

“We work closely with the famous University of Pisa – one of the most prestigious universities in Italy. The head of the chemistry department is one of Italy’s top scientists in levulinic acid research, Professor Anna Maria Raspoli Galletti, and we are so grateful to her.

“We are pioneers. We are opening a new market. And it’s a market potentially worth £20 billion. Many people tried and failed to find a way to produce levulinic acid on a break-even basis. Obviously, when you start something like that and you spend so much money, and where there is risk there is stress.

“To me, it was an escape. A football career is made of ups and downs. It cleared my mind and helped me to think about something different. And it was something intellectually challenging too.”

Biochemical market expanding

A market study released by the nova-Institute last week predicted that the global production capacity of bio-based polymers will triple from 5.7 million tonnes in 2014 to nearly 17 million tonnes in 2020.

This growth, it said, would be most clearly observed in the ‘drop-in’ bio-based polymer market, one of the products created by GF Biochemicals. ‘Drop-in’ chemicals are new products that do not require a change in manufacturing process to be accommodated.

Production of one such ‘drop-in’ – bio-based PET, made using bio-ethanol from sugar cane – increased by 600,000 tonnes in 2014, and is predicted to reach around seven million tonnes by 2020 after the Coca-Cola Company established the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC) initiative which seeks to accelerate the development and use of plant-based PET materials and fibres in the products made by Coca-Cola and its partners, including Ford Motor Company, H.J. Heinz Company, NIKE, Inc. and Procter & Gamble.

You can find out more about GF Biochemicals at the company’s website.

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