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 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.
Thanks, Rob, those are thoughtful and educational comments on this subject. Regarding younger folks, I remember when my niece, born in 1985, came back from kindergarten and talked about saving the planet. It was a real surprise to realize that what I had protested about was finally becoming mainstream and taught in schools. Glad to hear that this is the case in many large companies.
Those kindergarten impressions can last a lifetime. Part of the concern for the environment it might be fueld by guilt. A bright young professional take a job at Mobile, GE or TI and has concern about the company's practices. That professional may be carrying around some of the kindergarten impressions you described. So guilt about working for a company that may not have a great environmental record could prompt these professional to get behind positive changes.
I agree. Guilt is certainly a powerful motivator. Even though I've occasionally joked about needing some Guilt-Away Spray, I think it can be a positive motivator for good reasons, and this is one of them.
I've interviewed many of these young professionals at large electronic component producers (like TI) and consumer electronics companies. They are very knowledgeable about environmental technology, global regulations, and carbon emission evaluations. These are not PR and marketing people. I was surprised to find that many of these companies take their environmental policies and initiatives seriously. As recently as five years ago, it seemed most large corporations merely dabbled in environmental policies -- mostly they were simply complying with regulations. That has changed significantly.
Many seem to think bioplastics, RE, etc green things are more expensive That isn't the real facts. While some are and just greenwashing, true greenness is very cost effective as it SAVES things. Mostly when one saves it costs less.
The most effective green is using less to get more. If the designer/engineer is any good they do that automatically.
While I'm a social progressive I'm very much a real fiscal consevative, IE cheap, so want the least costly by full cost accounting. In almost all cases real green costs less in life costs.
Like oil, it's costs are huge and not in it's price but in our tax payments. 30% of the US budget goes to persian gulf military, oil wars, direct subsidies, pollution, $500B/yr trade deficit, $ that will never make another US job but support oil dictators and terrorists, etc. Add these all up and oil price would double.
Yet green energy most of the costs is labor, materials that make far more jobs, better economy and avoid all those other costs oil, coal have.
I've just found PV laminates costing only $.50/wt retail!!!!! Other panel with junction boxes only cost $1/wt, 20% of 6 yrs ago!! Sunelec.com.
I'm doing a bid to produce 2kw windgenerators costing under $2k/kw. At the same time I'm doing my own design for production.
Both these above over 3 yrs are well under the cost of coal, NG or Nuke retail costs. So go green and for under 3 yrs eergy payments, one can have almost free energy for 25-50 yrs!!
So those of you sticking to FF hold onto your wallet as it's going to be assulted badly. Best is start becoming energy independent or just use a lot less though smart living, insulation, etc.
Designers, engineers better go that way too or they will be left behind.
As for kids, they are far smarter than many give them credit for. They are watching Repubs and so called conservatives run our country into the ground fiscally and pollution wise. Their idea of freedom is make as much profit even if it kills people and leaves the bill to the taxpayer. Kids are smarter than that.
I'm not sure how many here remember just how bad the air, water got here in the 60's, knda like China now, when rivers caught fire and 50% of rivers, lakes, bays and seas were so bad. Now Tampa Bay is almost back to producing great fishing, etc because of green thinking which really is the old version of being conservative which this generation of repubs have fprgotten.
I agree with you that the supposed greater expense of bioplastics and other green materials is something of an illusion. Ot all depends on how you defined your universe and what you consider "costs."
I was a teenager in the SF Bay Area during the 1960s and know what you mean about the environment changing. I remember when the air there started to change from the crystal clear we only have now up in the mountains. I also remember a year not much later, I think it was 1974, when we had an unprecedented clear air day after some spring storms, where you could see from San Francisco all the way down the Peninsula, the air was so clear. It was a startling reminder of what we had lost.
In 75 I lived in Newport/Huntington Beach living on the inland cliffs and one day after living there 4 months Catalina, 23 miles, all of a sudden popped up quite large!! next day I saw Big Bear 40miles NE. Sadly was the last time too. Living there was like smoking 2 cigarette packs/day so left a few months later.
As for green energy Penn media just announced Michigan.gov reports RE costs 25% less than coal does in their state by a board appointed to track it's RE policies. So it's relly at parity or better in many places now. The economics is getting harder to ignore and try to explain away.
And by no means the only. It's been happening for a while on well done projects. Some have paid off already and now almost pure profit other than maintaining them.
Your Big Bear and Catalina sighting story reminds me of when I lived in LA, actually Venice, in the mid 80s to mid 90s. One winter, I think it was 1990 or 1991, for a week or so the temperature went down onto the low 20s and we heard that it had snowed on the San Gabriel range of mountains just inland from coastal LA. Now the San Gabriel range is invisible for like 99% of the time for years on end due to the polluted air. By then I had lived in LA at least 5 years, and suddenly you could see the mountains! It was a shock.
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.
aleemengr, there are actually two different material categories in the story. The first material, based on ruthenium, was developed in the lab and that study appears to be mostly a chemical one. I saw a wide variety of applications mentioned that this material could be applied to. The second two materials are plant-based, and they are created and sold by Cereplast. I suspect the company has some MDS you can check out.
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