Green Matter: Why you should keep a close eye on Metabolix in 2013

December 17, 2012

Early January 2012, just 11 months ago, Metabolix was reeling from the news that its partner ADM was pulling out of the Telles joint venture to produce Mirel PHA bioplastic. By the end of March, the Telles partnership was history.

Talk about a bad start to the new year.

Fast-forward to today, and it's safe to say that Metabolix is in a much, much better place. Richard Eno, the company's president and CEO is quick to agree.

"We've spent the past months putting our priorities in order and defining our focus.

"For our biopolymers business platform, that meant looking at how we wanted to be producing, defining our manufacturing strategy. And we are pretty much getting that pinned down now. Earlier this year, after a search for a new partner, we announced a relationship with Antibióticos, for the production of Mirel biopolymer resin at Leon, in Spain, close to many of our customers. In fact, three-fourths of our sales are based in Europe right now, so the announcement was well received there. Of course, we'll also be exporting from Europe to supply other customers as well," said Eno. "Right now, we are on track to produce demonstration quantities of Mirel bioplastic under own nameplate by early next year."

Richard Eno
Richard Eno, president and CEO, Metabolix.

The technology transfer from ADM to Antibióticos is well underway and modifications to enable 10,000-tons/yr of PHA capacity are currently in construction at the Leon site in Spain. Metabolix expects that Antibióticos will begin producing demonstration quantities of PHA biopolymer resin in early 2013, with commercial-scale production starting later in 2013.

According to Eno, the partnership is progressing very smoothly, aided by the fact that Antibióticos "has fermentation experience, a great workforce and a facility ideally suited for PHA manufacture, all of which have contributed to getting the product quickly to market."

Value over volume
The Spanish facility will be about 20% of the scale of the 50,000-ton capacity of the ADM production plant, reflecting the change in focus of Metabolix.

"We've opted for a focus on value over volume for this initial plant," said Eno. The commercial strategy today is directed at applications offering promising market opportunities. "We're focusing on PHA film, on the new development of using Mirel as a performance plastic additive in PVC and PLA, and on supplying customers for whom biodegradability is key," he continued. "The technology has moved on quite a bit since 2006, since building the ADM plant. Then, we didn't have the additive application. That is something that developed independently—we noted that customers were buying PHA as a performance enhancer instead of as straight PHA product, and decided to pursue that more seriously."

Metabolix subsequently developed a series of PHA copolymers and demonstrated that they were miscible with PVC resins. Specific compositions of PHA copolymers have been created to improve plasticization, impact and processing modification of rigid and flexible PVC—"with reduced migration concerns," as Eno pointed out. "We are also looking at PHA as a modifier for use in PLA to improve its performance parameters, but are currently still defining our commercialization strategy."

Next to the biopolymers business, Metabolix is active in two other areas: crop-based activities and the development of C4 and C3 chemicals as drop-in replacements for conventional petro-based chemicals. "We have a solid technical platform for C4 and C3 chemicals, because the fermentation process is very similar to that of our PHA biopolymers.  The hallmark and differentiation is the simplicity of our recovery process: the high-purity target molecule comes off in the vapor phase, in a process known as thermolysis," Eno explained. "We have a proven front end and a simple back end. The focus is on bio-BDO and bio acrylic acid. We have real strengths in that area, intellectual property rights, and there's a market of over ten billion USD out there."

New grade targets film
All in all, at Metabolix they are justifiably satisfied with the way 2012 has turned out. Although thrown for a loop at the start of the year, today the company is getting ready for the launch of its biopolymers in the new year. "We've got a biopolymer that can hit the performance target. Used in film, it rivals the performance of LLDPE. So we can compete in that market with a differentiated, bio-based product," said Eno.

He concluded: "It's been exciting, demonstrating our turnaround and rebound. We have the good fortune of working with a team that sees opportunities, that understands these and has a compelling vision for getting these materials into the market. Our materials have great potential in a market that is still growing 20% per year. Right now, it is intriguing to see all that is going on in the value chain regarding second generation feedstocks, in agriculture and so on. These are all developments that will help to continue to drive growth in this area."

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