Next month, Metabolix Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., will unveil a branding strategy for its corn-based PHA resin and double monthly production at its pilot plant to 30,000 pounds.
With its first commercial plant 15-18 months away from being operational, Metabolix is working on more than 50 product applications of polyhydroxyalkanoate with 30 different customers, said business development manager Kristin Taylor. Film applications are at the top of that list, and the firm expects the Food and Drug Administration to approve the use of PHA as a food-contact material by the fourth quarter of 2007, she said.
``We are eager to get into packaging markets,'' Taylor said in an interview at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held March 6-7 in Orlando. ``Extrusion paper-coated products is also a good target market for us.''
Additional markets that have triggered customer interest in PHA include cosmetics cases, plastic bags, detergent containers, mulch film and single-use food-service disposables like coffee cups - because of its ability to hold hot liquids, Taylor said.
She said Metabolix hopes the branding strategy and PHA logo - which it hopes to convince its customers to use - will make PHA products easy to distinguish from those made from bio- and petroleum-based plastics. The logo could be a critical issue because many bio-based products, such as polylactide, look identical to products made with polypropylene, polystyrene or PET, but they can potentially contaminate plastics recycling streams.
``We know the material can be recycled within our own plant,'' Taylor said. ``But we have not yet checked how it mixes with other materials in the recycling stream.''
Metabolix and its joint venture partner, Archer Daniels Midland Co., broke ground in December on a 110 million-pound-per-year plant in Clinton, Iowa, adjacent to ADM's corn wet mill. The partners expect to begin producing PHA in the second half of 2008 in the plant, which Taylor says can be expanded to four times its size.
PHA is grown in fermentation vats using sugar and microbes. Metabolix expects PHA's price point to be between $2-$3 a pound. But by 2010, the firm expects to ``grow plastics or PHA directly in plants such as switch grass,'' she said. ``Switch-grass technology will help bring the price down.''
PHA can be used in applications such as coated paper and film. The resins can be injection molded, thermoformed and used in extrusion coatings, such as paper cups. The firm also is working on blown and cast film and blow molded uses, Taylor said.
``PHA acts like polypropylene, only it is tougher. We see very good markets in packaging, electronics, building and construction and consumer products,'' she said.
She said companies making high-end natural cosmetic products are interested in PHA because they believe they potentially can get ``another $1 for that product,'' which would offset the additional 50-65 cents in cost they might incur by switching to PHA packaging. Office furniture and personal-care product firms looking to market their products as green also are interested in the material, according to Taylor.
``Companies who want to enhance the marketability of their brand as a green product are calling us,'' she said. ``The drivers are that it is bio-based, it reduces petroleum usage and greenhouse gases and is biodegradable.''
Metabolix estimates PHA production cuts petroleum usage by 80 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent compared with products it would replace.
The Plastics Environmental Division of the Brookfield, Conn.-based Society of Plastics Engineers sponsored the Orlando event.