TU-start-up traceless wins Deutscher Gründerpreis

Johanna Baare and Dr. Anne Lamp have won not only the prestigious Hamburger Gründerpreis, but also the German Gründerpreis with their company "traceless". Congratulations! The start-up is a spin-off of the TU Hamburg and produces packaging made of bioplastics that dissolves on its own after a short time. In this way, the company makes an important contribution to the fight against packaging waste.

A year ago, we profiled "traceless" in spektrum 02/2021:

A plastic that simply dissolves

Text: Frank Grotelüschen
Photos: Eva Häberle


Enormous amounts of plastic waste are produced worldwide - 90 million tons of which end up somewhere in the environment. A start-up created at the Technical University of Hamburg promises a remedy: It has developed a plastic that can be used in a variety of ways, is fully compostable and thus does not pollute nature.

On Anne Lamp's desk, among the keyboard, notepads and technical papers, is an iron. "We need this for our work," she laughs. "We use it to laminate our plastic as a thin coating on paper." The plastic the young process engineer is talking about has a remarkable property: it is made from grain residues and is completely biodegradable. If it should accidentally get into the environment, it is completely plastered by microbes after weeks or months at the latest - and, unlike ordinary plastic, it simply disappears.

Lamp began the development after earning her doctorate at the Technical University of Hamburg. In the meantime, the process has reached the stage where she has applied for a patent and founded a start-up called "traceless. The company is about to enter a crucial phase: A pilot plant will soon go into operation to demonstrate how the sustainable plastic can be produced cheaply and efficiently - an important prerequisite for commercial success. While studying for her bachelor's degree, Lamp became fascinated by the principle of sustainability and founded the Hamburg regional group of "Cradle to Cradle" - an initiative that consistently develops the idea of a circular economy and brings it to the people. "We consume vast amounts of raw materials and generate vast amounts of waste," says Lamp. "We first had to establish in people's minds that the alternative of a circular economy exists." Quite successfully - today, many more people and also companies pay attention to sustainability than in the past. Consequently, Anne Lamp also devoted her doctorate a few years ago to a sustainable topic - biorefineries. Biorefineries are plants that produce fuels, chemicals, energy and materials - not from crude oil, as in a conventional refinery, but as efficiently as possible from plant-based raw materials such as corn.

Anne Lamp
traceless-founder Anne Lamp in her lab

Fascination with biomolecules

"I was fascinated by these natural molecules," Anne Lamp recalls. "If you bring them together in a certain way, they can show remarkable properties." She soon discovered that the biomolecules, treated in a special way, could be made into a plastic-like material. "During my doctoral work, this was just a side issue," the researcher says. "But later, in discussions with industry, I realized they were very interested in a plastic that was truly sustainable." Although plastic emblazoned with the label "biodegradable" is already available for purchase, it only decomposes under great heat in industrial plants rather than in a common compost pile - and therefore doesn't have the best reputation among the public.

So Lamp delved into the matter, fiddled with the details and kept refining her process. Finally, in 2020, she took a bold step and founded traceless, together with Johanna Baare, a trained economist. "For me, founding a startup meant a bit of a change," says Lamp. "I had to take off my pure science glasses and suddenly think economically as well." Initial financial start-up support came from Hamburg Innovation's "Calls for Transfer" funding program. Since then, several partners have invested a low million amount in the young company.

Residues from beer production

In the meantime, traceless consists of a versatile team and the progress is remarkable. In the lab, Anne Lamp points to some yellowish, foil-like sheets, neatly lined up on the lab bench - a current series of measurements to optimize the material. It is paper, coated with the traceless plastic. "There is a lot of interest in coated paper that is biodegradable, especially for food packaging," Lamp explains. "That's why we're working here to continuously improve the properties of these coatings." The basis of the technology is a granulate that can be processed into films, coatings or even solid plastic parts. The raw material for this granulate is a brown powder; it is leftovers from food production, for example grain residues from beer and starch production. Biochemically, this powder consists of a colorful mixture of natural molecules and polymers - cellulose, starch, lignin, proteins, saccharides, fats. From this mixture, traceless experts extract the desired polymer ensemble using refined chemical processes. "We get out what we need," explains Anne Lamp. "That's where our core competence lies." The result: a powdered granulate that can be produced in various particle sizes.

This granulate is "flavored" with certain bio-based additives. These additives allow the material to be tailored for specific applications, such as whether it needs to be particularly tear-resistant or water-repellent. "Our production is a closed loop and generates no wastewater, waste or emissions," Lamp explains. "The carbon footprint is better than that of paper."

Completely gone after two months

The traceless team also tested degradability extensively: For example, they put their plastic in an ordinary garden compost pile, along with a conventional plastic bag. "After two months, our material was completely gone, unlike the bag," Lamp says. "That was completely unchanged." But then couldn't the traceless plastic degrade unintentionally, such as when it sits in the pantry for months? "No, it behaves similarly to paper," Lamp answers. "That, after all, only decomposes under conditions that prevail in the wild." Stored dry and protected, it can last for centuries - as countless historical documents prove.

The traceless plastic could be used, for example, to make disposable items that still all too often end up in the environment and whose production the EU has banned since this summer - including drinking straws, lollipop sticks, ice cream spoons and cotton buds. Another application that the start-up is working on is in agriculture: Here, seeds and fertilizer granules are often coated with plastic so that they do not take effect immediately after being spread on the field, but rather after a delay. This is practical for farmers, as they do not have to drive over the fields as often to spread fertilizer and seeds. However, this releases considerable amounts of microplastics into the environment. If fertilizer and seeds were coated with the traceless plastic, the problem would be alleviated - it would volatilize in the soil without leaving a trace.

Producing on a large scale

"Our real innovation is that we can produce very cheaply with our process," explains Anne Lamp. "We don't want to manufacture some niche product, but produce on a large scale - after all, we really want to solve a problem." To put its ambitious plans into practice, traceless is currently building a pilot plant in Buchholz, Lower Saxony: it is to supply one ton of granulate per month - enough for various partners and customers to extensively test the sustainable bioplastic and try it out for a wide range of applications. The first products should then also be available for purchase - albeit still on a manageable scale.

The next step is also already envisaged: The pilot plant, which will fit into a classroom-sized space, is to be followed by a first small industrial plant - planned monthly capacity: up to 500 tons. "This plant should be up and running by the end of 2023 and prove that our process works cost-effectively and on a large scale," says Anne Lamp. "Then it should be ready for large-scale industrial use."