DN Staff

November 17, 2009

5 Min Read
Telles Places Big Bet on the Future of Bioplastic

There's been a lot of hype, even "greenwashing", around thedevelopment of plastics made from plants, such as corn, potatoes or sugar cane.

What's the potential of these new materials for designengineers?

Developers of one material, called Mirel, say it's the real deal."Mirel is readily injection moldable for durable applications," says BobFindlen, vice president for sales and marketing for Telles, a joint ventureestablished by Archer Daniels Midland and Metabolix to develop Mirel, which isa polyhydroxoxyalkanoate (PHA).

Mirel PHA has a heat distortion temperature (HDT) as high as290F (143C) and physical properties that Findlen compares to ABS, a crossoverresin between commodity and engineering plastics. He says Mirel has goodhydrolytic stability, a drawback to starch-based plastics.

The catch is that it costs $2.50 a pound compared to lessthan a dollar a pound for petroleum-based ABS and $1 to $1.25 to polylacticacid, an aliphatic polyester made from corn starch or corn sugar that hasweaker thermal properties than Mirel. Oh, and you will need more material for beefierwalls and maybe ribs to obtain necessary impact strength.

The value proposition for Mirel, and to some extent otherbioplastics is twofold, and evolving.

At first, say even a year or two ago in North America, the pitch was biodegradability. But that was messy.Biodegradable in what? Many marketers wanted consumers to believe theirmaterial would biodegrade in landfills, which, in fact are scientificallydesigned to prevent biodegradation. And what's the impact of a biodegradableproduct on an existing plastics recycling stream? Often, not good.

"One thing that has changed," says Findlen, "is that peopleare becoming a lot more aware of the life cycle assessment. People want to makesure the life cycle of a material they are considering is no worse, andhopefully better, than the material they are presently using."

Life cycle assessment refers to a determination of the totalcarbon dioxide generation used by a product during its life.

Substantial Premium

So, in the case of Mirel, you pay a premium of 2.5X over theprice of ABS and you can market your product as biodegradable and a carbonfootprint improvement.

The biodegradable argument for Mirel works like this:

1)   Findlensays Telles is targeting applications in which there is not an establishedplastics recycling stream. So for example, replacement for PET bottles is noton the table.

2)   Tellesdoes not pretend its material can biodegrade in a landfill. But the compostingargument is tricky, because composting capabilities differ widely around theworld. Findlen says Germanyuses industrial composters to process waste. California may move in a similar direction.For the rest of North America, the pitch isthat people can put waste in home composters, or just bury it in theirbackyards.

The main target is packaging, but there are some indicationsthat the pitch is working for durable injection molded products.

Newell Rubbermaid will market three types of Paper Mate®pens whose Mirel housings can be separated from the innerworkings and disposed of in the ground. "Mirel can simply be placed in yourbackyard garden or compost," says a Paper Mate promotion. Labcon North America,a manufacturer of laboratory supplies, is using Mirel in its new Pagoda pipettereloading system. Mirel is injection molded into a tray that holds pipettes inplace.

"There has been growing concern within our industry that thedisposal of traditional plastics is too wasteful ...," says Jim Happ, presidentof Labcon. "Labcon previously supplied conventional plastic trays that werethrown away or reclaimed through Labcon's recycle program. Now we are planningto launch a composting program to complement this initiative."

Bioverse is using Mirel to produce a new biodegradableversion of its AquaSphere PRO pond and lake treatment system for golf courses.The AquaSphere is a submersible, plastic-enclosed water treatment system.

The big payoff for Mirel and products like it will be inconsumer product applications, such as computer housings and keyboards, cellphone housings, personal digital assistants and automotive parts.

Hewlett-Packard, a leader in trying more environmentallymaterials, tested starch-based plastics, which failed in even minimal heattests.

"What's held us back so far is that we're working out of asmall pilot plant in Clinton, IA," says Findlen. But thecapacity to produce Mirel from the factory will soon grow from 25,000 lb permonth to 110 million lb per year early in 2010. Infrastructure is in place toboost capacity fourfold. Metabolix CEO Rick Eno estimates that the potentialrevenues from a fully developed plant are more than $1 billion.

Another potential problem is the feedstock source for Mirelin Iowa - cornsugar via a fermentation process. Here's how Metabolix deals with the cornissue:

·       At full capacity, it says theTelles production plant in Clinton, IA that produces Mirel will useless than 0.05 percent of the global production of corn annually.

·       Locally grown field corn will beused as the feedstock.

DuPontis also using corn as a feedstock for a major dive into biobased plastics, butits marketing approach is different from the one used by Metabolix. "Our goalfrom the very beginning was to develop materials that offered equal or superiorperformance to the competitive materials," Marsha A. Craig, DuPont's globalbusiness manager for renewably sourced materials, told Design News in an interview at last June's National PlasticExposition.

DuPont is using its corn-based polymer as part of an alloythat mostly contains petroleum-based plastics. That's an approach also beingtaken in Japanfor components in cars and cell phones. That approach disregards one of the twoarguments employed by Telles - biodegradability, and totally focuses on thecarbon footprint issue. That approach has two other big advantages:  it improves the economics of the bio option,and improves mechanical properties for engineering applications.

DuPont'sSorona will be priced in the $2-$3 range, and offers better engineeringproperties than the moldable Mirel.

Thelong-range plan at Metabolix is to produce PHA within plants such asswitchgrass, sugarcane and industrial oilseeds using modern biotechnology. Switchgrass yields 3.7 percentof polymer within its leaves and 1.2 percent in the total plant. Researchershope to move away from a crop viewed as a food source, and also to improve theeconomics of their PHA.

Nobodysaid it is easy being green, but for some applications - and possibly many - theyincreasingly may make sense.

Water treatment chemicals are enclosed in a biodegradable sphere in a new product from Bioverse. Photo:  Metabolix

Telles Places Big Bet on the Future of Bioplastic A

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