Battelle, Marysville company develop bioplastic that uses soybean meal in place of petroleum
Ohio's pursuit of technology jobs - and the effort to reduce dependence on nonrenewable resources - has gone down
to the farm.
A process using soybean meal to replace up to 40 percent of the petroleum in plastics - developed by Battelle and licensed to Marysville-based Univenture - is "pure, cool science," said Keith Masavage, chief of strategy and operations at Univenture.
The resulting bioplastic could end up in toys and office supplies.
And if the cost and performance of the new product are as good as officials at Univenture's Biobent division say, "It would mean tons of revenue for the state, tons of jobs," Masavage said. "We could have a whole new
The new technology took root about two years ago, when the Ohio Soybean Council approached Battelle to develop a bioplastic that would put the eco-friendly material into wider use. The Soybean Council, which has a long-standing research relationship with Battelle, funded this project.
"We've been looking for new uses for soybean meal, because it's in somewhat oversupply right now, so the price is depressed," said Rick Heggs, director of biobased materials strategy at Battelle.
Soybean meal is the part left over after the oil has been removed, he said.
Battelle tinkered with the technology for a year or so, came up with a solution and then approached Univenture, Masavage said.
Univenture was the perfect place to bring the project because, "They have been making things using soy for a long time," said Gary Rawlings, director of technology commercialization at TechColumbus. "So they bring a manufacturing and marketing set of skills, and Battelle
brings the technology."
"Bioplastics have been on the market for decades, but every material introduced to date has required sacrifices in performance or price, and often both," Masavage said.
What Battelle came up with sacrifices neither.
"The plastics world is all about cost and performance," Rawlings said. "What Battelle has done is widen that window of applications, which makes it a much more attractive additive for plastics - and, with the cost element, it makes it a more-feasible application."
Univenture tested the composite by using it in the company's UniKeep binders. The result in late 2009 received an R&D 100 Award from the editors of R&D Magazine as one of that year's 100 most technically innovative products.
"Bioplastics is one of the hottest areas of the plastic industry right now," said Melissa Hockstad, executive director of the Society of the Plastics Industry's Bioplastics Council. "It's now only 1percent of plastics produced, but it's growing."
Industry analysts expect bioplastics to grow to more than 40percent in the next five years, she said.
A theme in the industry is use of renewable materials.
"I've seen work done with everything from sugar cane to algae to chicken feathers," Hockstad said.
Biobent blends petroleum-based plastic with between 10percent and 40percent soybean meal. The percentage of the cheap soy material varies depending on the performance characteristics required for the product - whether it's a bendable plastic folder, a semi-rigid toy doll or something else.
Univenture is now paying $1,840 per standard ton of base resin or "normal plastic," Masavage said. Because of the lower cost for the soy meal, current pricing models show that Biobent should be able to produce this resin in quantity for approximately $1,660 per ton.
The savings could really add up given the quantity of plastic in use. Annual production of plastic resin in the United States was estimated at 60 million tons in 2007, according to the most recent report by the American Chemistry Council.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said that, in 2006, about 331million barrels of petroleum and natural-gas liquids were used to make plastic products in the plastic materials and resins industry in the United States, equal to about 4.6percent of total U.S. petroleum consumption.
One of the most common uses of the resin, manufacturing plastic water bottles, required more than 17million barrels of oil annually.
This particular soy product, by the way, might not be ideal for making water bottles, given its color and tendency to retain water.
"Perhaps more important are how the environmental savings dwarf the monetary savings," Masavage said. "Biobent Polymer's product will eliminate 30 to 40 percent of the petroleum required to make plastic resin. With supplies dwindling and demand increasing, petroleum prices are expected to increase. Biobent will be able to reduce U.S.
demand for petroleum."
In January, Univenture signed an agreement with Battelle to be the exclusive licensee of the new plastic.
The employment and sales potential are only beginning to be tapped.
Currently, only three people are devoted full time to Biobent, with expertise from other Univenture employees tapped as needed.
The first two products that Biobent will offer, Biobent PP and Biobent PE, are polypropylene- and polyethylene-based.
"Our goal over the next couple of months is to decide whether to spin off as a separate corporation or leave things as they are now, as a division of Univenture," Masavage said. "By the time June rolls around, though, we'll enter a significant hiring phase, including sales, senior engineers."
Sales have yet to take off, but he indicated there have been talks with a "who's who of people who use plastics."
He expects orders to follow quickly.
"We've been blown away by the level of interest in the product."