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Low-cost biopolymers may be coming soon. (Your Business in Brief).

Genetically engineered microbes that produce thermoplastic polymers by fermenting cornstarch or sugar are going to start nibbling away at hydrocarbon-based resins more quickly than is generally expected. That is the view of James Barber, president of Metabolix Inc., whose company operates a pilot plant for polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) fermentation at its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

"We're fine-tuning our fermented PHA materials for possible use by late 2002 in adhesives, coatings, and coextrusion tie layers and heat-seal layers," Barber said in a recent interview. He said work on scaling up production of PHA--a biodegradable polyester--is already well-advanced.

Barber anticipates that PHA production in existing, underutilized industrial fermentation units could reduce the cost of making PHA to under $1/lb. He says grades suitable for injection and blow molding and extrusion are likely to emerge within a few years. Metabolix's Biopol technology can already make resins with ultimate elongation from 5% to 1000%. A broad range of molecular weights and thermal and mechanical properties has also been made with PHA fermentation.

Metabolix as created in 1992 to develop PHA technology. In 2001, the company acquired Biopol technology from Monsanto. Biopol was originally developed by ICI in the 1980s. A recent $7.4 million grant to Metabolix by the U.S. Dept. of Energy will help develop a new route to bio-production of PHA. Instead of fermentation, Metabolix will investigate making PHA through photosynthesis in the leaves or roots of the switchgrass plant. This is a fast-growing, native American grass that grows relatively well even on marginal farmland. "Direct plant-grown PHA could allow us to challenge volume resins in lower-cost packaging and other markets," Barber says.
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Comment:Low-cost biopolymers may be coming soon. (Your Business in Brief).
Publication:Plastics Technology
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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