A privately owned Chinese company is aiming to become a global player in the biodegradable polymers business, and recently hired a well-known, U.S.-based bioresin official to help achieve this.
Tianan Biologic Material Co. Ltd. named Jim Lunt as its vice president of sales and marketing. Lunt was a founding member of biopolymer pioneer NatureWorks LLC and previously served as that Minnetonka, Minn.-based firm's global director of product and applications development.
Lunt is a British Canadian who earned his doctorate in the extrusion compounding of reinforced plastics from the University of Liverpool in his native England, and relocated to Canada the following year. He helped develop the Sarlink thermoplastic elastomer business in the United States for Dutch firm DSM NV, and for the past 16 years has specialized in biodegradable polymers.
Tianan has focused its efforts on the family of biopolymers known as polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, and specifically on the most promising type of those materials - a copolymer known as polyhydroxybutyrate valerate, or PHVB. Tianan has been scaling up the sampling of its product in major markets around the world, he said in a June 29 telephone interview from his Minneapolis home.
The firm is developing technology based on expired or abandoned patents from the old Biopol-brand material previously in the portfolio of ICI/Zeneca and then Monsanto Co., he noted. Bacteria make the polymer from cornstarch and many of Tianan's 60 employees are involved in the fermentation.
Tianan plans to double its current annual production capacity for PHBV in its headquarters city of Ningbo to 4.4 million pounds by year's end, and further extend it to 22 million pounds by mid-2009. Lunt said the firm's goal is to have 110 million pounds of capacity in place by 2011. He contends such an increase is very feasible in manufacturing terms, but admits market response will dictate whether the capacity is needed.
``Pricing will be the driver,'' he said.
PHAs have been more expensive to make than the polylactic acid type of biopolymers produced by NatureWorks.
Today, Lunt said, Tianan's product costs $2.36 per pound for basic powdered PHBV in quantities of 440 pounds and up. Pelletizing adds about 4 cents per pound. Quantities of 110,000 pounds or more reduces the price by 15 percent, to about $2 a pound.
At commercial-scale production rates, the company projects the price can come down to about $1.60 a pound.
Lunt had been working as a consultant with his own firm, Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, when he was introduced early this year by Cargill Inc., via a venture capital company, to Tianan officials traveling through the United States. That led to an invitation and a visit to Ningbo.
``I was quite skeptical,'' Lunt said. But his eight-day trip to Tianan headquarters in May changed all that: ``I realized they really were truly only focused on PHBV. I saw several hundred tons of warehoused material, and I saw their customer list.''
Tianan is making the product from Chinese natural cornstarch, with no modification. China is the world's second-largest corn grower, and the feedstock is cheap and plentiful.
The company offers five grades of material, but that number will increase, Lunt said. It offers two types of PHBV powders and a pelletized grade, plus two pelletized grades of its Enmat-brand materials - one for injection molding and another for blown film.
The Enmat products are a blend that contains Tianan's PHBV and BASF AG's Ecoflex, a synthetic, biodegradable, food-contact-approved polyester made in Germany.
The Chinese company already injection molds and commercially sells golf tees and microwave-safe, disposable eating utensils made from its Enmat PHBV. On its Web site, Tianan says blow molding, sheet extrusion and coating techniques ``are ripe'' for development, and the company is now ``perfecting mass production processes.''
Lunt said Tianan is supported by the National Innovation Fund of China and has benefited from some government development funds. But it also is looking to attract a strategic investor. He seems realistic, yet encouraged by the prospects for PHBV.
Lunt cited the current PHA joint venture between Metabolix Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co., called Telles, and the fact that Cambridge, Mass.-based Metabolix is building a 110 million-pound-per-year plant in Clinton, Iowa, due to begin production in the second half of 2008.
He concedes that Tianan plans to move at a more deliberate pace and to remain focused purely on PHBV. But he stressed that he sees the efforts of Telles and Tianan as complementary, not competitive. The two firms' market development work, Lunt said, may well help such materials to find a home, not as commodity materials, but as blends and in higher-end applications where naturally made, totally biodegradable polymers make sense.