A joint venture between bio-resin maker Metabolix Inc. and agricultural firm Archer Daniels Midland Co. will build a plant capable of making as much as 100 million pounds annually of their new organic bio-resin, the companies announced Feb. 13.
They tout their natural plastic - polyhydroxyalkanoate - as the first commercially viable 100 percent organic plastic.
Both Metabolix and ADM officials said the goal is to have the plant operating in 2008. Other than the capacity, neither company disclosed details on the size or location of the facility.
PHA, based on corn sugar and made through microbial fermentation, sells for about $1.50-$2 per pound, though there's hope that over time, that price could drop to about $1.
PHA's primary replacement targets are polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. Plastic cutlery, coated paper cups, bottle caps and cosmetic cases are among the products PHA is most likely to be used in at first. The companies also see opportunities in short-use products like foam coffee cups and lids, and drinking straws.
The first commercial product made of PHA will be agricultural stakes commonly used in sod applications. Unlike steel spikes, PHA stakes will decompose, eliminating the need to dig up the stakes once the sod takes root. The stakes could be available as soon as this year.
Like every resin, cost and performance will dictate PHA's success. Metabolix officials said that despite PHA's ability to decompose quickly in soil or marine environments, the product has more than adequate shelf life for various packaging applications.
``Set on a shelf? It could last multiple centuries,'' said Dan Gilliland, business development director for Cambridge, Mass.-based Metabolix. ``It seems like an oxymoron, but it degrades in sea water in a matter of months. The difference is microbes. Microbes in sea water are similar to what we used to create PHA in the first place.''
Metabolix and ADM officials have not stated specific goals for PHA consumption.
``Commercial quantities of the PHAs we intend to produce have never been widely available. Now that Decatur, Ill.-based ADM and Metabolix have made a commitment to commercialize the technology, we expect the interest level to grow rapidly,'' said Terry Stoa, ADM's vice president of technology and business development.
Company officials are cautiously optimistic about the future of bio-resins.
``We and our partner, ADM, believe this is a commercially attractive alternative to petrochemical polymers that warrants the construction of a commercial plant and commencement of commercial production,'' said Tom Auchincloss, Metabolix's chief financial officer.
Metabolix was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992. It acquired biopolymer technology from Monsanto Inc. in 2001.