In a deal between two bioplastics leaders, Metabolix Inc. has licensed a patent covering bio-based polylactic acid resin to NatureWorks LLC.
The patent — known as the 199 patent — covers production of PLA blended with polybutylene succinic polymers and similar materials, officials with Cambridge, Mass.-based Metabolix said in a March 14 news release.
“This research greatly expands the uses of PLA in biodegradable plastics, because the blends allow for a stronger, more flexible form,” inventor and patent-holder Stephen McCarthy said in the release. McCarthy is a professor of plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
In a March 15 phone interview, Oliver Peoples, Metabolix chief scientific officer, said that his firm has a strong relationship with UMass-Lowell and “wanted to leverage that relationship to create value and to support and grow the bioplastics industry.”
Metabolix previously had licensed the patent to global chemicals giant BASF SE, which has used it to blend PLA with other materials in its Ecoflex-brand bioplastics. Adding NatureWorks to its list of licensees “taps into the two largest compostable plastics in the world,” Peoples said.
NatureWorks is based in Minnetonka, Minn., and operates a commercial-scale PLA plant in Blair, Neb. The plant ranks as the world's largest bioplastics facility. NatureWorks is a joint venture between agricultural giant Cargill Inc. and plastics and chemicals maker PTT Chemical Public Co. Ltd. of Thailand.
NatureWorks will use the Metabolix license to make materials through AmberWorks, a joint venture it formed recently with biochemicals firm BioAmber Inc. of Montreal. BioAmber currently makes bio-based succinic acid, a feedstock for bio-based modified polybutylene succinic polymers (mPBS), at a plant in France. The material is then shipped to China, where it's toll compounded by several Chinese compounders before being sold to processors, NatureWorks marketing and public affairs director Steve Davies said March 15 by phone.
The Metabolix license “allows [NatureWorks] to make compounds we couldn't make before,” Davies added.
Metabolix last year started commercial production of bio-based Mirel-brand polyhydroxyalkanoate resin at a plant in Clinton, Iowa. But the firm suffered a blow earlier this year when agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur, Ill., pulled out of a commercial alliance between the two firms, citing insufficient results. The plant is no longer producing material and Metabolix is looking for a new production site, Peoples said.
Metabolix has struggled financially, losing almost $40 million in 2011 on revenue of less than $1.5 million. Almost two-thirds of the firm's 2011 revenue came from grants. On Wall Street, Metabolix's per-share stock price was above $10 in early 2011 but had declined to about $3.15 in late trading March 15.
NatureWorks posted sales gains of more than 20 percent in 2011, both in dollars and sales volume in pounds, Davies said. The firm is planning for similar growth this year. Its 350 million-pound-capacity PLA plant in Blair is expected to be at full capacity by 2015. That same year is when the firm plans to open a second site — with annual capacity of 300 million pounds — in Rayong, Thailand.
Davies said that Thailand was selected as the site for the second NatureWorks plant because of its access to natural feedstocks, the size of its customer base and because of Thailand's interest in becoming “a green hub” for Asia.