|Irish startup turns waste plastic into biodegradable products |
By Lisa Sibley
Published 2009-12-09 15:13
What began as research project to produce biodegradable plastics from waste has evolved into a company that now has large scale ambitions.
Ireland-based Bioplastech is converting waste, agricultural byproducts and petrochemical products into value added biodegradable plastic polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), Kevin O’Connor told the Cleantech Group today. PHAs are linear polyesters produced by bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids, according to Wikipedia, and can store carbon and energy.
O’Connor, who heads the company’s management team, is a senior lecturer in microbiology at University College Dublin, Ireland, which developed the technology and is collaborating with Trinity College Dublin.
Started in 2008, Bioplastech is also looking at waste food oils and biodiesel, though the main driver to begin the 10-employee company was waste plastic, O’Connor said, comparing it to most companies which are going the biomass route. The company is looking to test its lab-proven technology on a larger level.
“We’re looking to scale the fermentation side of it and also produce the polymers so we can work with a number of partners,” he said.
The company has been funded with about €10 million ($14.7 million) from the Irish government, including government development agency Enterprise Ireland, which supports indigenous companies and academic research (see Trinity College Dublin looks to bring cleantech innovation to market ).
O’Connor said Bioplastech is seeking €5 million to €7 million in new investment to build the company’s infrastructure, scale up production, and develop patentable products for various industries including the agricultural and biomedical sectors. O’Connor declined to disclose the kinds of products.
The funding would be used to build a pilot scale facility to demonstrate the technology. O’Connor said a European partner has agreed to build a subsequent commercial scale facility if Bioplastech can demonstrate its technology at pilot scale. Its global potential customers range from the ag and biomedical fields to general packaging.
In Europe, it ranges from €100 to €200 per ton to get rid of the waste, he said. Companies pay to have it collected, which is in turn sold at a markup to China.
“There’s a growing need to deal with plastic wastes,” he said, describing how when oil prices dropped, the plastics recycling industry collapsed.
China, which is one of the single biggest importers of plastics, reverted to virgin oil; the country didn’t want to pay for plastic waste at uncompetitive prices, he said. Instead, it is ending up in landfills, or in the case of Ireland, O’Connor said it is being warehoused.
“Waste plastic is something people are willing to pay to get rid of. That has a certain business advantage,” he said.
O’Connor thinks his company’s technology holds an advantage in that it’s the first medium chain linked PHA. Most companies are working with short chain length PHA, where demand currently outweighs production. However, medium chain length PHA is a superior thermoplastic elastomer that offers water resistance and barrier properties.
The company plans to profit by licensing the resin for its products and partnering to produce the plastic.
The company’s competition includes companies such as U.S.-based Metabolix , which is making bioplastics from starch-based materials such as corn (see Metabolix, ADM to open new bioplastics factory  and New bioplastic from Metabolix and ADM is biodegradable ).
Bioplastech is one of 20 potential new investment opportunities the Cleantech Group added to its innovation pipeline this week, available exclusively to members of the Cleantech Network . Members can click here  to search the database.
Interested in emerging cleantech innovations? Here are two new international companies added to the Cleantech Group's database this week also looking for funding:
McLean, Va.-based Perseid Solar is currently seeking $10 million in startup capital. The company provides fully configured solar systems with architectural and engineering support so that its customers have grid-tied photovoltaic power.
Denmark-based NewCo is seeking an unspecified amount of funding to develop its pilot phase, a global sales strategy, and build a fiber board plant in Naestved, a commercial town in Zealand, Denmark. The company develops a technology to turn sludge waste from paper production into useful building boards for walls, partitioning, and ceilings.
Seeking capital, partners or customers? Submit to the Cleantech Group’s innovation pipeline . cleantech.com
Bacteria That Eat Plastic to Make Plastic Goes Commercial
Michael Kanellos 04 07 09, 1:58 PM
Thanks to Todd Kimmel of Mayfield Fund and overall green chemistry fan for updating us on this one.
Last year, we wrote about how Kevin O’Connor at University of College Dublin had come up with a way to recycle old plastic bottles and containers with microorganisms. The bugs eat a cooked down version of a plastic bottle and metabolize it into new, saleable molecules. If I could do that, I’d never leave home.
The plastic that comes out of the digestive process is also biodegradable. It can go safely into a landfill and will disappear over time.
O’Connor has since formed a company, called Bioplastech, to commercialize it. CrapPlastic is funner, but might spook investors.
If the process can be brought up to an industrial level, it could help the world get rid of the nation-sized mass of plastic that humanity has generated. Right now, there are two general ways of dealing with old plastic.
Some countries, like England and Ireland, ship it to other countries after doing the green thing and recycling. Plastic bottles have a low recycling value; hence, a lot of the plastic ends up in landfills forever. (But the Irish are big into recycling — a 15 cent tax on plastic bags dropped their use by over 99 percent, O’Connor said.)
The other method to “recycle” plastic is to burn it. Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and other countries practice it. It yields useable energy, but it’s not the cleanest practice in the world either.
Bioplastech’s process works like this. Polypropylene (plastic) is cooked until it turns into a styrene oil. The oil is then fed to microorganisms, which metabolically turn it into globules of fatty acids.
When 60 percent of the bacteria consists of those fatty acids, the microorganism is split open and the harvested fatty acids are converted to a biodegradable plastic. See why bacteria make such good workers?
Keep your eye on Ireland in cleantech and advance science, by the way. For years, the Irish tech industry primarily concentrated on serving as an outsourcing destination for multinationals. But in about 2000, the government — realizing that Ireland was no longer a low-cost center — began to invest in technology transfer center and incubators.