WASHINGTON, May 27, 2015 – In the very diverse bio-products arena, the rapid expansion of biofuels production has captured most of the attention for decades. But a lot is happening off the biobased stage.
At Target Field in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Twins forged a winning record in the early going, but they're hitting something else clean out of the ballpark: All of the petroleum-based plastic cups and containers long used in concession sales will all now be of plant-based recyclable materials. The switch is a droplet in a rising wave of new biobased products and expanding uses – everything from clothing, carpet, cleaners and cosmetics to computer and car parts.
Makers of American biobased products cover the spectrum in size and set up shop as often in rural as in urban and exurban sites. Many operations are young and small: The median participant had fewer than 10 workers in 2012, USDA says, and 40 percent of them made just one product. But national and world production of biobased products is virtually impossible to measure because it is so diverse and woven into all manufacturing sectors. Three years ago, a USDA-sponsored study found 27,484 biobased products just among the 3,500 companies registered in the department’s BioPreferred program, which certifies such products as eligible for a preference in federal government purchases.Harry Baumes, who heads USDA's Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, expects a new outlook report on biobased products due out by mid-summer to show types and volumes of such items are soaring. That's especially true for biochemicals, which include the biopolymers (plastics), he says. A report last year by economists at North Carolina State and Duke universities estimated that, despite current growth, bio-based plastics account for under 1 percent of plastics worldwide. But, Baumes says: “About 96 percent of the industrial processes around the world involve chemicals. The potential [for biochemicals] is huge,” though he also believes that the crude oil price erosion to about $60 a barrel is making it harder for biochemicals to compete economically with petroleum based versions.
However, “It's about more than just the end price,” says S. Blake Lindsey, founder of MHG, a young bioplastics company in southern Georgia. “The big brand names are paying attention to what consumers want. Americans don't like seeing plastic wash up on their beaches,” he says, and that spells opportunities to make and sell materials that are biodegradable and safe for people and the environment.
To supply MHG's feedstock, thousands of nearby acres were yellow this spring with an unusual crop for the South: winter canola, which farmers are harvesting with plans to grow a second crop this summer of peanuts, sweetcorn or cotton on their same tracts. MHG will ferment oil from the canola seeds to make various polyhydroxyalknoates (PHAs). They are biodegradable plastics that feature a wide range of possible uses because chemists can vary their physical properties and strengths. Possible products include tough packaging and coating materials as well as printing fluids, for example, and even fishing nets that will break down in the sea. MHG started with 500 acres of canola last year; this year it’s contracting for about 4,000.
Recent action in the big bioproduct players' camp includes Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., replacing some of the heavy rubber in its new line of sports-utility-vehicle tires with silica derived from rice husks. The lighter silica not only shaves vehicle weight, but improves the tires' rolling resistance as well as their traction on wet surfaces, the company says.
Meanwhile, NatureWorks, the source of most of Target Field's eco-friendly containers, turns out more than 21 formulations of its type of bioplastic, called polylactic acid (PLA) and made from corn dextrose. The company has started making new, low-viscosity Ingeo plastics to be used as the ink, so to speak, in 3D printers, which build articles robotically by printing in layers.
NatureWorks sold about 5,000 tons of Ingeo its first year in 2001; this year it’s predicting sales will top 100,000 tons. Steve Davies, NatureWorks communications director, expects the company to open a plant in Thailand in three years making Ingeo from cane sugar.
Other U.S. companies are taking biobased production abroad. Chicago-based Lanzatech will install a system to capture the smoky flue emissions of a China Steel Corp. plant in Taiwan. Its gas fermentation process will use microbes to recycle the carbon-rich waste gases into 17 million gallons a year of ethanol and gasoline additives.
And one rapidly emerging branch of biopolymers sure to get increased plastics market share is nanocellulosic materials. Various forms of nanocellulose are produced by bacteria, enzymes and other means, materials comprised of microscopic fibers that exhibit a huge range of physical properties. Cheap feedstocks such as wood pulp or field waste become plastics, paper, packaging products, cosmetics, gels, foams, coatings, and stabilizer in processed foods. The White House Office of Science and Technology projected that the economic growth of nanomaterials in the paper industry alone could create as many as 425,000 jobs in the U.S. by 2020.
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