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Two Pacts May Help Spur Biomass Plastics

by Alexander H. Tullo
March 28, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 13


BP and Cambridge, Mass.-based Metabolix are collaborating on a new route to polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), while the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are taking steps to commercialize a corn-based plastics additive.

BP, including its new Innovene olefins and derivatives subsidiary, and Metabolix have signed a joint-development program for renewable plastics. BP will contribute full-time staff to Metabolix for two years, and the companies will explore together any commercial options for the technology.

BP and Metabolix will focus on a switchgrass-based route to PHA. Oliver Peoples, chief scientific officer at Metabolix, says some bacteria naturally produce PHA, unlike other biobased plastics such as polylactic acid. The firm hopes that PHA-producing genes from the microorganisms can be introduced into switchgrass to yield viable quantities of the polymer.

Peoples adds that PHA may enhance the value of the switchgrass, enabling it to become a commercial biomass fuel. Metabolix hopes to prove the commercial viability of the process in five years.

Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland have been planning a 50,000-metric-ton-per-year PHA plant based on a fermentation route to the polymer. Peoples says a joint-development program with BASF is being phased out.

Separately, Battelle, which operates PNNL, is licensing its technology for converting sorbitol to isosorbide to the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, which intends to sublicense the process to potential isosorbide manufacturers. Isosorbide, which is also a heart disease drug, can be used as an additive that makes plastics stronger and more rigid.


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