From Fields to
Plant-Based Materials Replace Oil-Based Plastics, Polyesters
TERENCE CHEA / Washington Post 3may02
When Patrick Gruber, chief technology officer at Cargill Dow LLC, peers into the future, he sees a world made of corn. Not gaudy structures like South Dakota's Corn Palace, whose exterior is decorated with thousands of painted corn cobs, but the stuff of everyday life: T-shirts, socks, milk bottles and auto parts.
Plant-based plastics are yet another hoax by the plastics industry. Plastic production using plant-based material requires about 50% or more oil-based chemicals. They will always require toxic chemicals in the mix--plasticizers, colorants, UV-protection, etc.--that will migrate into food they contain, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the earth beneath our feet. Adding genetically modified plant-based material to the plastic will not reduce energy and oil inputs, but will increase them, as well as the toxic waste byproducts.
Genetically modified crops:
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Gruber's future may soon be reality. Cargill Dow's new factory in Blair, Neb., which converts field corn into a biodegradable substance it calls NatureWorks PLA, is shipping the material in bulk to produce packaging materials, clothing and bedding products.
Coca-Cola Co. is using it to make soft-drink cups, McDonald's for salad containers and Pacific Coast Feather Co. to fill pillows and comforters. Cargill Dow executives said the corn-derived polymer will compete directly with petroleum-based plastics and polyesters on price and performance.
"It's all about sustainability," Gruber said. "Would you rather buy a product made from corn from the Midwest or petroleum from the Middle East?"
The commercial launch of Cargill Dow's NatureWorks -- the first "biomaterial" to reach the market -- demonstrates the rapid emergence of industrial biotechnology. In the past three decades, biotechnology has revolutionized health care with new medicines and diagnostic tests. It has changed agriculture with genetically modified crops and livestock. Now it is transforming industry.
"We're just beginning to see it adopted in all sectors of the manufacturing economy," said Brent Erickson, vice president of industrial and environmental biotechnology at the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. "This could transform the old economy. It's going to provide new ways to make things that are cleaner and more economical."
But the question persists: Is industrial biotechnology good business? Researchers have shown that it's scientifically possible to make environmentally friendly materials and processes, and major corporations are investing heavily in their development. But industrial biotechnology, which is a small business relative to medical biotechnology, has yet to prove its worth in the marketplace.
"There's a lot of potential here, but I think we're early on in realizing this potential," said Roger Wyse, a managing director at Burrill & Co., a San Francisco venture capital firm. Burrill recently created a $50 million fund to invest in early-stage start-ups focused on biomaterials and bioprocessing, but Wyse cautions investors about the sector's future.
"Investors would like to see how they're going to get a return on their investment," Wyse said. "That's quite clear in health care, but it's much less clear in some of these new areas."
Nonetheless, in ways seen and unseen, biotechnology is changing the industrial landscape. Major chemical makers are building plants to convert biomass (plant-based organic matter such as corn, rice and grass) into biomaterials. Enzymes -- proteins that trigger molecular reactions -- are replacing chemicals for industrial tasks such as cleaning, bleaching and food processing. Biotech companies are developing technology to turn agricultural waste products such as corn stalks into ethanol, a commonly used fuel additive.
Most plastics and polyesters are made with chemicals extracted from petroleum. Biotechnology uses the sugars stored in plant matter to make the ingredients of new materials.
Industrial biotechnology does not draw as much attention or controversy as other areas of biotechnology, such as cloning, stem-cell research or genetic manipulation of plants and animals. For example, Greenpeace is opposed to industrial biotechnology when it involves the environmental release of genetically engineered organisms, but it supports the development of biomass as an alternative source of energy and material.
"You reduce dependence on fossil fuels, you reduce greenhouse gas production, and you eliminate toxic chemicals that become part of the ecosystem for decades," said Rick Hind, who directs Greenpeace's anti-toxics campaign.
Several factors are accelerating the development of industrial biotechnology. Advances in genetic technology provide new tools to design more sophisticated products and processes. Stricter environmental standards and a growing number of environmentally conscious consumers are creating a market for bio-based products. Venture capitalists and major corporations are making large investments in industrial biotech research.
The government is showing increasing interest in the field. Several federal agencies, led by the Energy and Agriculture departments, sponsor research to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, address global climate change, reinvigorate rural economies and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
"This administration is looking for a very balanced portfolio of energy sources, and biomass is one of them," said Mark D. Paster, an official with the Energy Department.
The farm bill passed by the House yesterday authorizes $5 million in 2002 and $14 million a year from 2003 through 2007 to fund biomass research and make grants to build "biorefineries" -- factories that convert biomass into chemicals, fuels and energy. The bill also would require the government to give preference to purchasing bio-based products.
Almost all of the world's largest chemical makers are investing in biomass research. Multinationals such as BASF AG, Celanese AG, Chevron Texaco Corp., DSM NV, DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. are forging partnerships with biotech companies to develop new enzymes that can break down plant sugars.
"Ten or 15 years ago, people would have said, 'It's a laboratory curiosity, but nothing's happening,' " said Kevin Swift, an economist at the American Chemistry Council, an Arlington-based trade group that represents the major oil and chemical companies. "People are now investing in actual commercial plants. It's beyond the laboratory."
DuPont, the world's largest chemical company, is working with sugar producer Tate & Lyle PLC to build a factory that uses a genetically engineered microbe to convert plant sugars into an ingredient to be used in clothing, packaging and plastics. DuPont uses a chemical process to make the ingredient, but the company plans to switch to the biological process once the technology is fully developed.
Cargill Dow's $300 million Nebraska factory, which became fully operational in January, is the first to produce biomaterials on a commercial scale. If the company succeeds in making bio-based products profitable, other companies and countries could follow as technology improves and oil reserves shrink.
Cargill Dow, a joint venture between agricultural giant Cargill Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., and Dow Chemical of Midland, Mich., was spun off from Cargill in 1997 and now employs about 230 people.
The company's factory uses a fermentation process to extract natural sugars from corn and produce the key ingredient in a substance called polylactide, known by the brand name NatureWorks PLA.
The company makes PLA from the sugar in corn kernels but plans to switch to cheaper agricultural waste such as corn stalks, wheat straw, rice hulls, sawdust and prairie grass, whose sugars are more difficult to break down.
Company officials say NatureWorks products degrade more easily, generate fewer greenhouse gases and require less energy, water and raw materials to produce compared with petroleum-based products. They also pitch its national security benefits.
"Every dollar we spend on agricultural products here is a dollar that doesn't go overseas," Gruber said. "We can deliver the technical performance at a fair price. Plus, it's made from renewable resources."
Pacific Coast Feather, one the nation's largest home textile companies, plans to introduce its first PLA-based products at retailer Bed, Bath and Beyond Inc. in June.
Pacific Coast officials said PLA-based fibers insulate and breathe better than polyester-based products and do not retain odors as much. Its goal is to convert 80 percent of its polyester-based products to NatureWorks over the next five years, said Fritz Krueger, the company's vice president of marketing. The new products will cost about the same as other high-end fiber bedding products, he said.
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