Most of today's plastics and synthetic polymers are produced from petrochemicals. Bio-based products represent an attractive alternative to conventional plastics. Plastics produced from petroleum consume a non-renewable resource, persist in the environment and are a significant source of environmental pollution. Bacteria can produce chemicals that could be commercially useful, but such microbial routes are inefficient by industrial standards and tend to produce unwanted byproducts. Metabolix proposed a radical approach to re-engineer the primary metabolic process of E. coli to convert sugars based from renewable resources into a family of broadly useful polymers at greatly increased yields. The project intended to reduce the cost of producing polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), a family of biodegradable polyesters with attractive properties that could replace many petroleum-based plastics used today. In addition, the new metabolic engineering method was an infrastructural technology that could be applied to fermentation processes for making a wide variety of other chemical compounds. However, this small, 30-person firm could not attract venture funding for this endeavor. Because the proposed project had a high degree of innovation and technical risk, and large potential benefits (it could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, save energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions), it applied for and received ATP support.
and Economic Impacts
The ATP project helped Metabolix with the financial resources to undertake this high risk project, using their innovative “Industrial Genome Engineering” approach.
- The results of the ATP project helped Metabolix secure millions in funds for research and development that it otherwise would not have been able to in the timeframe that it did.
The project made major advances in molecular biotechnology and bioprocess engineering. As a result, through the ATP project, Metabolix was able to “change the prospects for
the production of PHA natural plastics from an academic curiosity to industrial reality”, according to Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Oliver Peoples.
- The metabolic engineering technology breakthrough that ATP enabled was recognized when Metabolix won a prestigious U.S. Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2005.
In addition, the technical results helped to catalyze a joint venture partnership with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
- Together, the two firms are building a manufacturing facility in 2008 with an annual capacity of 50,000 tons of PHA. This plant, to be located at the Archer Daniels Midland corn wet mill site in Clinton, Iowa, will employ around 120 people.
The process uses engineered E. coli to convert agricultural raw materials such as sugars from corn into the biodegradable polymer PHA. PHAs are a broad and versatile family of natural plastics that have a wide range of properties,
from rigid to highly elastic, making them suitable for films, fibers, adhesives, coatings, molded goods, and a variety of other applications.
- The ATP-funded technology developed will benefit multiple economic sectors, and lead to a new factory and jobs, while maintaining a sustainable, environmentally-friendly profile.
Date created: May 22, 2006
December 15, 2006