By Michele F. Mihaljevich
WOBURN, Mass. – Over the next few years, North American farmers may have the opportunity to grow a genetically modified plant containing natural polyester polymers that could be processed into consumer plastics.
Yield10 Bioscience, based in Woburn, has been researching the natural polyester polymers found in Camelina, an oilseed plant similar to canola, flax and safflower. Once the polymers are extracted, they can be used in the production of biodegradable plastics. Those plastics would have a variety of uses, including for single-use containers, said Dr. Oliver Peoples, the company’s president and CEO.
“This would be a product grown, processed and used in North America,” he noted. Because the market in North America could potentially be very strong, the product wouldn’t need to be exported, Peoples added.
The plastic polymers (polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs) are prevalent in nature. The biodegradability of products made with PHAs makes them environmentally friendly, he said.
“The goal is two-fold,” Peoples explained. “The crop could be grown on a very large scale in the U.S. and Canada. It’s plausible to envision millions of acres grown in the United States. Camelina checks so many boxes. That’s a key for the grower. They could grow a crop where the return is high.”
Helping the environment is another key, he said. “In the last 10 years, more plastics have been produced globally than were ever produced before. This could make a big dent in the plastic pollution problem. We’re working to enable new markets and new products. We’re using agriculture directly for sustainable solutions.”
The plastics produced from PHAs “perform and behave” just like other plastics, he said. PHAs are also very effective in wastewater treatment and may help remove nutrient pollution.
Camelina could be grown as a spring crop or as a cover crop, Peoples stated. In addition to the plastic polymers, the plant provides oil, and protein that could go straight into animal feed.
Yield10 wants to see a PHA content of 10-20 percent in the Camelina plants before they’re commercially available, Peoples said. They were able to reach 6 percent content in field trials last year.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” he noted. “We may be able to drive it higher. We know we can get there. We plan to do larger scale field testing next year. We’re probably four-five years out (from commercial availability).”
As for cost, Peoples said, “Over time, we believe we can produce plants for around the same cost as vegetable oil. That’s our goal. We want to be economically advantaged and sustainable.”
Peoples founded Metabolix, Inc., in 1992. The company was rebranded and restructured in 2017 as Yield10. He began his research on bioplastics while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1980s. “It’s an overnight miracle 30 years in the making,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, but when. This would be home grown, home processed, home used. It would provide new options for farmers. It would give them the opportunity to select what’s good for them. It’s a unique natural material that happens to have a range of applications. I’m very confident and very optimistic.”