Typically, speakers at the Society of Plastics Engineers' annual conference put up slides of polymer molecule chains. What did Balaji Singh show in the big screen at Antec 2010? The Swamp Thing.
He was making a point.
Algae is the ultimate winner for alternative energy and bioplastics, said Singh, president of Houston consulting firm Chemical Market Resources Inc.
Most energy sources are regionally based. Think about oil, coal, biofeedstocks, he said. Algae is independent of the region. You can make algae in the sub-Sahara. You can make algae in Iceland. You can make it in the United States anywhere.
Cereplast Inc. recently announced it will commercialize its first grade of algae-based material by the end of the year.
Singh delivered a plenary speech May 18 at Antec. His subject: alternatives to fossil-fuel-based raw materials to build a sustainable future.
That was a hot topic at Antec, held in Orlando. At least 50 technical papers and other presentations centered on bioplastics.
While Singh likes algae, Angela Harris, a research engineer at Ford Motor Co., made a similar claim about wheat straw a fiber blended into polypropylene.
We were excited by this fiber. There are a lot of good reasons to be looking at it. It's not part of the food chain. It can be grown locally. It does not compete with any alternative fuel sources. It's renewable and it's an agricultural waste, or byproduct, she said.
Bio-based feedstocks are a small but growing part of the petrochemical industry, Singh said. And although bioplastics now are mainly used in packaging, other durable-product markets are coming.
But Singh said the emerging sector needs more direct involvement from big resin companies to grow at a faster rate and bring down costs.
Singh and several other Antec speakers also raised a central problem: Biopolymers cannot command too-high prices. People can say they will buy green products, but when it gets down to it, they still look at price.
Emotion-based sales are good, but they are not dependable, he said.
In the meantime, the plastics industry still is seen as the bad guy, unfairly, Singh said. Plastic represents just less than 1 percent of a barrel of oil, but we receive 99.2 percent of the blame, he said.
Later that day at Antec, a new technology forum on bioplastics featured speakers from two major end users: Deere & Co. and Ford.
Deere has a long history in agricultural-based plastics. In 1997, the Moline, Ill.-based company began working on soy-based polyester resins, and teamed up with Ashland Inc. to develop a soy-based sheet molding compound.
Jay Olson, engineering director at Deere, said the farm-equipment maker learned of research at the University of Delaware, then contacted Ashland.
We were a customer who asked, and that's what initiated it, he said.
The soy-based SMC cost more than traditional SMC, but the parts painted better, so the overall cost was the same, Olson said.
Henry Ford tested a soybean-based car body. Today, Ford is pushing bio-based resins, natural fibers, soy-based seating foam and headliners, and post-industrial recycled fabrics for seats, according to Harris.
Ford has dubbed the soy-based foam seat the EnviroSeat.
We really do believe it's the future and it's the right thing to do for our company, Harris said.
Ford is using the wheat straw/ PP material in third-row storage bins on the 2010 Flex. Harris said Ford is continuing to do molding trials of natural materials.
Longer term, the automaker also is studying polylactic acid, including PLA blends with other polymers. PLA applications could include textiles, injection molded parts and packaging for Ford factories, she said.
Harris said Ford officials want to put all the green materials into a single car, probably the Ford Escape.
Our goal at Ford is to try to assemble all of these technologies whether they be recycled materials or bio-materials and putting them on one vehicle in one concerted effort, and really marketing it to our customers that is really a green vehicle, not only in terms of powertrain but also in terms of materials, she said.
Another speaker at the new technology forum, Steve Mirshak, president of DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products LLC, reviewed the history of the firm's Bio-PDO resin, a propanediol monomer based on corn sugar. It is a feedstock for DuPont's Sorona bioresin, which has promising markets in carpeting and clothing.
Mohawk Industries Inc. is using Sorona in its SmartStrand carpet.
Mirshak said creating the monomer is an important step to new biopolymers. [Carpet] is one of the best examples of an industrial biotech monomer being converted to a polymer and having an excellent end-use market, he said.
The joint venture between DuPont Co. and Tate & Lyle plc recently announced a capacity expansion at its plant, in Loudon, Tenn.
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