The Japanese technology-driven chemical company Kaneka (with a branch in Oevel) wants to develop an MS polymer based on lignin with VITO’s help. The collaboration shows that there is sufficient knowledge and expertise available for commercial players in Flanders to make a difference.

MS polymer (or modified silane polymer to give its full name) is a liquid polymer made from petroleum derivatives that serves as a base material for high-quality elastic adhesives, sealants and coatings. Since its invention in 1978, its use in sectors such as construction, transport and industry has consistently increased. "The basic product already has several tried-and-tested unique properties," says Richard Vendamme of VITO. "It is low in VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions and is solvent-free, which is good for the environment and human health. But there is also scope for innovation and improvement." Vendamme is referring to MS polymer’s high shear strength, among other things. "MS polymer is currently still too flexible, and not stiff enough, to continue to expand into certain new applications. What’s more, there is scope to improve its adhesive force, for example on moist subsoils such as showers or swimming pools."

Bio-based and better

In order to make a genuine breakthrough, a bio-based product has to be ‘green’, as well as ‘better’. That fact has not escaped the attention of Kaneka Belgium in Oevel, where the Japanese chemical multinational has its European headquarters. Kaneka has already begun working together with VITO to develop an improved, bio-based version of its MS polymer, which has been one of the company’s most successful products for many years. The collaboration is part of an ambitious VLAIO [Flemish agency for innovation and enterprise] project worth 2.5 million euros. The Flemish government and Kaneka are each contributing half of the costs of the project, which was launched in June 2018 and will run for three years. The collaboration came about naturally, says Luc Peeters, R&D Manager at Kaneka: "We noticed that there is a great deal of knowledge and expertise available in Flanders in the field of bio-based chemistry, and this know-how is ready and waiting to be tapped into by companies such as ours. That is how we ended up working with VITO."

Two birds with one stone

Kaneka’s R&D department will be working closely with VITO until the summer of 2021 to develop an improved MS polymer based on lignin. Over past years, VITO has built up considerable expertise in the use of lignin, which is the second most commonly-occurring organic material on Earth after cellulose. "The best thing about it is that lignin naturally has a firm and rigid structure," explains Vendamme. "Plus, it is highly adhesive and moisture-resistant." By the end of project, the researchers hope to have killed two birds with one stone. "We want to make an end-product that is both bio-based and has even better properties."The (future) development of the new MS polymer will provide a boost for Kaneka’s Oevel site in any case. "It is a prime example of how VITO’s innovation can contribute towards the embedding of chemical companies in Flanders," comments Dirk Fransaer, Managing Director of VITO. "We are especially proud that our research, which we began long before there was any demand for sustainable alternatives, is being used in the chemicals industry, and in Flanders."