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New Technology Allows Maine Organization to Create a New Material
6 years, 3 months ago Posted in: Industry News 1

Back in 1967, a young Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman in the classic movie “The Graduate” was given some advice:

“I just want to say one word to you – just one word. Are you listening?”

“Yes sir.”

“Plastics.”

44 years later – Mike Belliveau has an update:

“Bio-based plastics.”

Belliveau is the director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Maine-based nonprofit that promotes clean energy and safer chemicals. He’s also one of the leading advocates of a push for locally produced, environmentally friendly plastic.

“Where we are with bio-based plastics now is where we were with petroleum-based products back in the 1920s,” said Belliveau. “We’re just inventing ways of using these materials for the first time.”

About 1% of the world’s plastics are currently made with bio-based material nearly all of which comes from corn starch, but, Belliveau says, demand is growing, and according to one assessment, about 90% of all plastics could be replaced with non-petroleum alternatives right now.
Belliveau sees this an emerging bioplastics revolution…one that has enormous potential for Maine:

Mike Belliveau: “Before the end of this year we will be able to hold plastic pellets in our hands that were made from Maine potatoes.”
Tom Porter: “You’re confident of that?”
MB: “Yes.”

Belliveau is also vice-president of the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine, a newly-created trade association that’s trying to help Maine gaine a foothold in the biopastics industry. He says scientists at the University of Maine are planning to produce a plastic resin called PLA, which stands for poly lactic acid, using wood chips and potato waste both of which maine has in large supply.

Bioplastics are also touted as environmentally friendly because they’re free of the controversial additive found in some plastic items called Bisphenol A, or BPA that many scientists say can impair brain development.

Not everyone agrees. Recent comments by Maine governor Paul LePage reveal a scepticism about the dangers of BPA. While the American Chemistry Council says the science condemning it is not yet reliable.

Steve Russell is vice-president of the council’s plastics division.

“The ACC and our members stand behind the assurances of safety that have been provided by the US FDA and governments around the world, and our confidence in the safety of those products is based on the expert reviews by those agencies,” Russell said.

Nevertheless, the appetite for alternatives plastics is there, and a number of companies in Maine are interested.

In an industrial park near the popular mid–coast vacation town of Boothbay, a startup called Biovation is making PLA from corn starch which is used to make most commercially available ‘green’ plastics.

Chief executive Kerem Durdag points to the machine making all the noise.

“What you see over here is what we call the Melt-Blown Line. It’s an extruder, you put the polymer in it, the plastic in it, essentially it grinds it,” said Durdag.

This Melt-Blown Line has 3,000 nozzles thatforces tiny bioplastic fibres out at high temperatures onto a moving belt, where they become randomly entangled. The end result is a fluffly-looking fiber pad. If these trials are successful – Durdag hopes the padding will be used by the medical industry for wound-care products.

Biovation also makes food packaging from bioplastics, designed to extend the shelf life of fresh fruit by protecting it from harmful bacteria.

“It is a plastic. We use polylactic-based polymers, which are sustainable, they’re green, they’re biodegradable and it comes from corn starch.”

Corn starch today – but what about potato pellets tomorrow?

“If that is possible, and if that happens, what we as a manufacturer will get is a massive amount of pellets made from Maine potatoes, and we can take that and run it through the machine, and that would be fairly exciting,” said Durdag.

But, he says that’s a big ‘If’ at the moment. Although the technology to make plastic from potatoes is nearly there, Durdag says there’s still a long way to go before manufacturers will start using it.

Any new PLA will have to peform as well as, or better than what is already commercially available. Then there’s the matter of cost: corn-based plastic, is now being produced so efficiently out West, that durdag says it’s actually cheaper than its petroleum-based equivalent.

Kerem Durdag: “We are manufacturer-agnostic of PLA, we’ll use anybody’s PLA as long it accomplishes our end goals.”

Tom Porter: “But if Maine-based material was available for the same price.”

KD: “I’d be all over it, absolutely, I’d be all over it.”

For this to happen, Maine would have to construct its own PLA-producing facilities:

One scenario imagines two plants in Maine, one based near a source of potatoes in Aroostock County, and the other near a source of forest products.

These would have significant positive economic impacts in terms of jobs, in Maine,” said Durag.

UMaine economist Jonathan Rubin worked on a 2007 study looking at the effects that an in-state bioplastics industry would have on the Maine economy.

A PLA-manufacturing plant is probably going to cost about $200 million to construct, he says, and that’s going to require a lot of venture capital, plus some state funding in the form of R&D bonds.

But Rubin says it could lead to the creation of a thousand or more permanent jobs in Maine, plus about another 1,800 temporary construction-related jobs over two years. To be successful, Maine’s bioplastics industry must serve markets beyond its borders.

“To the extent that Maine can be a manufacturing production center for the larger New England region, that’s where the gains really come in terms of much more significant impact,” said Rubin.

And that wider New England market is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in sales according to Rubin.

About Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine
The Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine (SBCoM) is a trade association dedicated to building Maine’s emerging industry of plastic products that are non-toxic, petroleum-free and bio-compostable. Since 2007, the SBCoM has advanced the research and development of bioplastics made from renewable raw materials here in Maine like potato waste and forest biomass. Consumer demand for greener, more ecologically-friendly products as well as decreasing dependence on petroleum-based plastics has heightened the use of bio-based plastics. An impact analysis study showed the production of even one such bioplastic called poly-lactic acid (PLA) proposes significant market potential and economic benefits to the state.  Visit our site at http://www.mainebioplastics.org/

About The Environmental Health Strategy Center
The Environmental Health Strategy Center promotes human health and safer chemicals in a sustainable economy. We believe that every person has a right to a clean and healthful environment wherever they live, work, learn or play. We envision a future that provides good green jobs, healthy communities, and social justice for all.  The Environmental Health Strategy Center was founded in Maine in 2002. We work for systemic change by blending science-based advocacy and creative constituency development with strong coalition organizing and strategic issue campaigns. We focus on two program areas – Healthy People, which seeks to improve health through safer chemical policy reform at the federal and state levels, and Sustainable Economy, which models a green chemistry economic development strategy to produce bioplastics from Maine potatoes and other biomass.  Visit our site at http://preventharm.org/

About Biovation
Biovation is a manufacturing company that possesses a wealth of experience, expertise and technology in the field of non-woven fiber and infection control formulations. However, what we are most proud of is our ability to listen to our customers. It is this ability that allows us to create added value for our customers and reduce cost in the total value chain.  All of the non-woven products and infection control formulations we manufacture are unique for each customer and application. Our business model is grounded in servicing individual customer needs. We take pride in working closely with our customers to develop value-added solutions and create partnerships that can transform markets.  Our market-focused organization is designed to work closely with a diverse set of market-leading global customers to identify and design new solutions. A fundamental goal of this working partnership and in-depth customer knowledge is to identify opportunities to transform markets. Our expertise allows us to take that knowledge and deliver customized solutions.  Visit our site at http://www.biovation.com/

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One Response

  1. […] New Technology Allows Maine Organization to Create a New Material (compositology.com) 03/12/2011 […]

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