Monsanto Co. is moving into the degradable plastics market, buying the Biopol-brand business unit of Zeneca Group plc. The unit presents an interesting opportunity for St. Louis-based Monsanto, which has experience in performance materials, plant biotechnology and fermentation enterprises.
``This acquisition is a strategic fit with Monsanto's goal of developing products that complement a sustainable environment,'' said Robert T. Fraley, president of Monsanto's Ceregen unit, which develops agricultural products.
Monsanto purchased the Biopol unit April 22. The Biopol unit develops and manufactures biodegradable polymers for use in consumer products and packaging disposed of through composting.
Biopol is a polyhydroxyalkanioc acid, or PHA polymer, produced through the fermentation of micro-organisms. A common soil and water bacterium, Alcaligenes eutrophus, is fed glucose. A carbon is added and the bacteria then produce a plastic polymer from the glucose and carbon combinations.
Although the fermentation process currently has a market in food packaging, shampoo bottles and disposable plates, cups, trays and cutlery, the process is expensive, said spokeswoman Stacy Soble.
Monsanto is exploring the production of biodegradable plastics from genetically engineered soybeans and canola using Biopol's technology. Through plant bio-technology, researchers may develop an even more efficient method for producing PHAs, since plants use sunlight to produce the polymer while some fossil fuels are required in the fermentation process.
``The potential to produce biodegradable plastics in a low-cost, renewable production system such as a soybean or canola crop is tremendously exciting,'' Fraley said.
Soble said a property in oil-producing plants like soybean and canola make those plants more desirable.
And though the process is still in the research stage, it is less expensive. Monsanto plans to commercialize the polymer-producing plants sometime after the year 2000. Potential uses include grocery sacks, garbage bags, containers for food, personal-care products and fibers.
Monsanto would not disclose Biopol's revenue or the price it paid for the company. However, besides the initial payment, additional compensation will be paid to Zeneca Group as the business develops and expands.