Ann, seems like you've been writing about a variety of efforts--both research and commercial--that are really advancing the use of plants and metals in the production of bioplastics and other key materials. Very interesting stuff, and obviously, this is an area of focus for companies looking for alternative and more sustainable materials options. My question is have we arrived at some sort of tipping point driving what appears to be a multitude of efforts?
Beth, I don't think we're at a tipping point yet in bioplastics, in the sense that they're collectively about to take over the world of plastics in all areas. Far from it, as I learned in the reporting for my upcoming March feature on the subject (but they are beginning to make a dent). What I do think we're seeing is a wide-ranging search for sustainable materials and processes. There's a ton of research going on, in the best of the invention tradition: "what would happen if we...what would happen if it were possible to..." Some of it will stick, some of it won't. Meanwhile, we're developing tools for judging the worthiness of such efforts, such as life cycle analysis (LCA) and certification programs, such as those mentioned in the P&G wood pulp clamshell story:
Nice story, Ann. What a wide range of developments you've been covering in materials. In general, what is funding this? I would imagine with P&G, it's just a matter of designing with different existing materials. But with these new materials, it would take considerable dollars. Is the funding coming from government or industry? Both?
Good question, Rob. I've been trying to discover the source of the funding in each case, which is not always possible. With larger companies it's often internal. With smaller companies it's often funding by government or larger companies as partners. In the case of the universities, it can be multiple, and I've noticed research is often being conducted in partnership between the university team and either a company or a consortium. Regardless of who's doing the research, the Europeans and Asians seem to be more likely to have government funding.
Yes, it's always interesting to see where the funding comes from. I was surprised a few years ago to find out that oil companies were investing in research on crops that could best be used to create biofuel. I guess they're hedging their bets.
When I first heard that I just assumed it was greenwashing/corporate image PR. I still do, to some extent--the rest I'd guess, like you, is hedging their bets. I'm much more likely to believe that a small, new, earnest company like Ecovative, the mushroom packaging guys, or Be Green, the pulp clamshell guys, might be on the level and not greenwashing since they've got nothing to lose in doing so, than I am to believe that big oil companies are on the level, since they have so much to lose. OTOH, the big oil companies will have a lot more to lose if they don't get their alternative fuel act in gear. OTOOH, it's not like they haven't known for a few decades that dyno-fuels will run out one of these days.
I agree, Jerry. And we'd better stop destroying biomass stupidly if it's going to be in such demand for smarter uses.
The Freedonia Group analyst I interviewed for my upcoming bioplastics March feature said that by volume, bioplastics now represent 1/1000 of the entire plastics market and might become 1/100 of that volume in 10 years. Interestingly, the first bioplastic was developed in 1947, and began replacing steel and rubber in cars in the 1960s. It's made of castor bean oil.
I think it's a combination of things, Ann. Certainly greenwashing has to be a factor. Everybody loves to hate the oil companies. I'm sure they're well aware of their image problem. Another factor, I would think, is to be a leader when alternative fuels begin to take a bite out of fossil fuels (even if that does take forever).
Another factor I've seen is that young managers and executives have grown up in a world with Earth Day. I've seen this at a number of large corporations (like TI) that have sustainability groups. There are people in these corporations who sincerely want to edge their employers toward the green side.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a surface preparation method to improve joining carbon composites with aluminum, with potentially far-reaching ramifications for high-volume industrial applications.
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