Continuing the theme of the bio-based economy, I would like to profile Metabolix, a Massachusetts-based company specializing in the production of bio-based plastics, chemicals, and energy sources.
According to the Fredonia Group, demand for bio-based plastics, driven by consumer demand for environmentally-friendly products and packaging, will triple by 2015 to over one million metric tons, valued at $2.9 billion.
Metabolix markets two biopolymer resins: Mirel™ which is certified biodegradable and just recently announced Mvera™, a film grade product which is certified compostable. Both share the physical properties of petroleum-based resins and can be processed on existing equipment with similar productivity and post-processing techniques.
These resins are made using a patented fermentation process and plant-derived sugar. Like nearly all bioplastics and organic matter, Mirel and Mvera will not biodegrade in conventional landfills due to the oxygen-deprived environment.
The company has a number of plant-based C3 and C4 chemicals in development. C4 chemicals are used in applications ranging from high-performance engineering plastics to spandex. C3 chemicals have applications in paints, coatings, diapers and adhesives.
Metabolix is also developing plant-based energy sources from oilseeds, switchgrass and sugarcane. They have a wholly-owned subsidiary in Saskatchewan, Metabolix Oilseeds, that is conducting research to develop an advanced, genetically modified oilseed, Camelina, for the co-production of bioplastics, vegetable oil, biodiesel fuel and oleochemicals.
The company just received an ARPA-e grant for a joint project with UCLA. According to the press release, “Metabolix researchers will work closely with Professor James Liao to engineer alternate biochemical pathways for carbon fixation into the crop plant, camelina (photo). Metabolix’s multi-gene expression technology and its significant prior work in camelina will help increase the number of new traits expressed in each plant, which is expected to produce new pathways to a greater variety of liquid fuels from camelina and other plants.”
These alternative biochemical pathways could theoretically allow a plant to capture twice as much CO2 from the same amount of light.
When I asked Metabolix President and CEO, Richard Eno, what makes his company stand out from its peers, he said, “Metabolix brings a unique mix of technology, industrial know-how and intellectual property to the plastics, chemicals and energy industries. We’re developing three distinct platforms for bio-based, biodegradable plastics and chemicals that are true alternatives to petroleum-based products. Between our people–specialists in diverse areas such as plant genetics, chemical engineering and polymer science–and our more than 600 issued and pending patents, we believe we’re ahead of the innovation curve for bio-industrial engineering.”
Like Novozymes and other biotech companies, Metabolix uses genetic modification technology to produce their bio-based products. The use of this technology outside of the food domain has been spared some of the controversy engendered by GMO food crops. There are those however who do oppose its use, claiming that, for example, the use of GM crops in biofuels will serve as a back door entry point for this technology into places like Europe where its use is currently restricted.
Proponents, however argue that the benefits of this technology are two-fold since they not only help improve crop yield in terms of bushels per acre, but they also can improve the amount of product extracted per bushel as well. Metabolix, does not use any food crops for their feedstock, so they are unlikely to be jeopardizing the food supply with gene contamination.
Still, I think it’s fair to say that the risks are not completely understood.
Not to pick on Metabolix, but to look at the broader question of genetic engineering; is the use of this technology a planned disaster, as some claim, or are we just too early in the learning process to really know for sure what we are dealing with? My personal view is that we are too early in the process to be pushing it as aggressively as some companies are, especially in the food domain where the risks are probably the greatest.
Roger Saillant of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western Reserve, says, “No matter what is done in changing plant genetics there will be a response in the natural systems. What form those responses take and how soon they occur is always a big question. I doubt anything is ever as benign as it would appear no matter how good our intentions are. The case in point is to look at what happens when so-called non native plants are introduced into an ecological system. Adjustments in systems occur.”
Perhaps the question is one of controlling the introduction of these organisms into the marketplace and the eco-sphere. Do we have adequate mechanisms in place? Is enough testing being done? It’s not clear that there is. This is a good example of where “letting the market work it out” might be the worst possible approach. Large scale systemic impacts, which may well be the most important considerations, are currently treated as externalities. That allows companies to focus exclusively on the narrow question of profitability, leaving the public and the environment exposed to the risk of potential disaster without a counter-balancing independent regulatory authority Allowing the industry to set the agenda while remaining passive spectators at best, or active cheerleaders at worst as the FDA and USDA have done, is clearly not serving the public interest, in this writer’s view.
There are unquestionably large potential benefits to the use of this technology to bolster sustainable enterprises. And I don’t think we have any choice but to pursue them in our quest to replace the enormous fossil-based infrastructure that we have become completely dependent upon for the fuel, chemicals and plastics that are the mainstays of our economy. That infrastructure was, I might add, created in the near-total absence of the precautionary principle, as opposed to the intense scrutiny being given to its would-be successors. Being able to replace these petroleum-based products and raw materials with plant-based alternatives is clearly a more sustainable path. But there are also risks that are not well understood, which is why I think we must proceed carefully.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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