Imagine for a moment that PET resin costs $1 per pound. Now reduce the material to 20 percent relative density and the price falls to 20 cents per pound. Add process costs of 40 cents and the total is 60 cents per pound a 40 percent net savings.
That's the kind of math executives at a startup company are doing to aid in selling their new solid-state microcellular expansion technology for plastic foams. First announced Nov. 11 at Pack Expo 2008 in Chicago, the process developed by researchers at the University of Washington is being marketed by privately held development stage company MicroGreen Polymers Inc. of Arlington, Wash.
``We have a $46 billion addressable market. About half of it is packaging. The other portions are the aircraft industry, automotive, building products, electronics and appliances,'' Chief Executive Officer Thomas Malone said in a Nov. 12 interview at the trade show.
In the process, extruded plastic sheet is placed in a pressure vessel, where it's saturated with carbon dioxide. Next, it's transferred to an air-flotation oven, where the carbon-dioxide molecules separate from the polymer molecules and expand, leaving millions of tiny bubbles.
``We can control the location of the bubbles and size of the bubbles very, very carefully and very, very repeatedly. It's actually a very slow process in the sense that compared to extrusion technology that is happening very fast under tremendous pressures, this is happening at a very controlled pace, even though we're running at 300-500 feet per minute,'' Malone said.
By varying pressure, temperature and time, engineers have created foams with matte or glossy finishes, he said. The university holds patents on the process, which MicroGreen has the right to produce or license out.
MicroGreen, which was founded in 2002, in 2006 completed a Series A rounds of funding, which netted $2.5 million and is completing a Series B round, which aims to raise $5 million. Malone said the company should turn a profit in 2009.
In addition to its Arlington headquarters, MicroGreen has a sourcing and contract manufacturing facility for joint development projects in Green Bay, Wis., which it operates in partnership with Sierra Coating Technologies LLC.
Although Malone would not give their names, he said MicroGreen already has development projects in the works with an electronics manufacturer for a reflector plate that goes behind the LED display lights in CD/DVD players, as well as an agreement with a major U.S. aircraft manufacturer for interior panels for airliners.
At Pack Expo, MicroGreen representatives showed off thermoformed food trays and printed overwrap for coffee cups made from recycled PET using the process. ``We are a company with a green value system, so by focusing on recycled PET, we are also expanding a material which can be recycled again,'' Malone said.
According to MicroGreen, its process can be applied to dozens of resins, including PET, polystyrene, PVC and ABS, as well as bioresins like NatureWorks PLA and Cereplast.