Microscopic bacteria may hold the key to replacing traditional petrochemicals in plastics and synthetic polymers.
Metabolix Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., has been awarded $1.6 million from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help fund research into the creation of biodegradable-based plastics.
The two-year research project is expected to cost more than $3.2 million.
The company is working to improve the efficiency of microbial fermentation by re-engineering the central metabolism of E. coli to convert renewable sugars into polymers at high yields.
If all goes well, the project will yield lower-cost polyhydroxyalkanoates, or biodegradable polyesters.
Robert Bloksberg-Fireovid, NIST advanced technical project manager, said the funding is part of a government program that supports high-risk research projects.
Bloksberg-Fireovid said the Metabolix project definitely qualifies as high-risk.
``There is a significant chance it could fail,'' he said.
Despite that, Bloksberg-Fireovid said the potential economic benefits outweigh the risks involved.
``If they're successful, they should be able to take these concepts and apply it to other chemicals and other feedstocks and produce them,'' he said.
The PHAs, which seem to have high-impact strength and ductility, could be used in a number of different areas including packaging, flushable hygiene products and coatings for water-resistant cartons.
Repeated calls for comment from Metabolix, a biotechnology company, were not returned.
Bloksberg-Fireovid said that in 1994 NIST funded a similar project for Cargill Inc. before its affiliation with Dow Chemical Co. In that project, Cargill was looking to renew the properties of plastics and get a better understanding of polylactic acid properties.
``Because of the help we provided, they developed that technology and partnered with Dow,'' he said.
``So, we're hoping to do the same thing with Metabolix.''
While the projects are similar, Bloksberg-Fireovid said Metabolix's project is unique.
``They're not looking at the properties of plastic itself,'' he said.
``It's more about getting the cost of feedstock down. Right now it's too high for a more broad-based application of PHA-based material.''