This is a great technology that uses bio waste to manufacture good product. Hopefully, it is not cost prohibitive to do so. Consumers are typically not motivated enough by "green" product to pay a premium for it.
More companies like BASF need to pour investment dollars into companies like Renmatix to push forward the commercialization of novel bioplastics. As with most emerging technologies, the innovations come smaller companies, which are often bootstrapping development. Cash infusions like this one go a long way in helping these technologies see the light of day.
Ann, this is definitely big news! This technology could easily be a game changer. And it is an interesting use for supercritical water. Supercritical fluids have many interesting properties. Only recently have people begun to take advantage of these properties.
There are a few minor errors in this article, mostly in the third paragraph. First, polyethylene and polypropylene aren't produced from sugars by fermentation. Fermentation of sugars produces ethanol. Ethanol can then be used to produce ethylene, which in turn can be used to produce polyethylene. The process described in the article only gives you the first step (sugars). These sugars could potentially be used in any number of industrial processes. As Renmatix puts it, "We don't sell cake to the baker, we create the flour" -- or sugar, as the case may be.
Second, the sentence "cellulosic sugars are extremely difficult to break down" should probably say something more like "breaking cellulosic material down into sugars can be difficult."
Still, this is a huge development. My biggest concern about bioplastics has always been the morality of using food crops to produce disposable consumer goods in the midst of a global food crisis. A cheap, fast method of producing biopolymer feedstocks from waste materials is a big step towards addressing this concern.
Thanks everyone for your feedback. I just had an interview with a research group yesterday that made me smarter about the complexities of the cellulose-to-ethanol chain, but thanks, Dave for pointing out the goofs. The Freedonia Group has just completed a major study of bioplastics and they had some interesting things to day. First, consumers *do* care and that's why most of the volume to date has been in less durable bioplastics to replace things like trash bags. Things made with the more durable stuff, aka engineering plastics, is a different matter. And unfortunately, most bioplastics of any kind are still being made from food crops, not from non-food crops like switchgrass. Stay tuned--a March feature will address more of this in detail
Nice article, Ann. A quick question -- why does it matter if food crops are used? I would think it's the fertile land that's taken up that matters. What you grow on it for materials doesn't really matter. As for eating into the food supply (so to speak), cows are pigs do more to eat up food land than materials ever will.
Rob, it's hugely important. Growing food crops purely for use as biofuels and other non-food uses is a problem in several ways. Aside from sequestering land, the bigger problem is that it drives up the prices of human food (as well as prices for animal feed). The higher price of corn in particular has been devastating to poor people in Latin America, for example, who are on the edge as it is.
Diverting the non-food trash from food crops grown as food crops would make a lot of sense, in fact, perhaps the most sense, but is not yet being done. Even growing non-food crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuels, etc. would make more sense.
OK, I get it. I remember now how corn prices rose during the time when ethanol was restricted to corn crops. Yes, it makes sense now. I also like the idea of consumer materials that are otherwise bound for the landfill.
@Rob: You're right that switching acreage from food crops to (say) switchgrass in order to make biopolymers would have the same effect on global food supplies as making biopolymers from food crops.
The advantage of the technology described in this article (as the title alludes to) is that you could use waste biomass, such as corn leaves and stalks, to produce sugars. This way you wouldn't need to plant any additional acreage, or switch any acreage away from food crops.
It's true that the use of grains as animal feed may not be the most efficient use of land or food crops, but at least the animals which are fed with the grains wind up as food for people.
@Ann: I see that you answered Rob's question before I did! Thanks for bringing up the effect of rising corn prices on the poor in Latin America. This is a story that many people in the U.S. know nothing about.
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