Clemson's homegrown corn plastic

CLEMSON, South Carolina, August 24, 2004 (ENS): Tetramer Technologies, LLC is adding corn to plastic containers - and cars, airplanes and golf clubs. The Clemson University spinoff company has just received a $100,000 small business research grant from the National Science Foundation to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of plastics partially derived from renewable sources like corn.

The award follows two previous grants, demonstrating that the National Science Foundation is really interested in vegetable based plastics.

Most plastics, varnishes and packaging foams are made from chemicals derived from petroleum. But now stiffer environmental regulations and consumer conscience are driving the search for materials that are recyclable, renewable and less polluting.

Polylactic acid is a byproduct of corn. It currently is used in some pill coatings and sutures because it easily dissolves - a property not desirable in drink containers, boat coatings and packaging.

Clemson University professor Dennis Smith and his research group have found a new way to replace up to 50 percent of the chemicals that make regular plastics with polylactic acid. The end product is a plastic that has both the environmental friendliness of the corn-based product and the durability of regular plastics.

Potentially, this new material could reduce by five billion pounds per year the amount of single use, nonbiodegradable plastics that are discarded. The new manufacturing process also could cut air pollutants from plants that produce plastics.

But corn based plastics are not really new. In May 2003, Wild Oats Markets became the first grocery stores in North America to switch from conventional plastics to corn based polylactic acid plastics for packaging.

IPER, a 22 store chain in Italy, first launched a Cargill Dow corn based plastic packaging product in 2002 to bring new attention to its fresh foods. All 22 IPER markets now sell a broad range of produce, fresh pasta and salads in the corn plastic packaging.

And in Belgium, the supermarket Bio-Planet began offering foods packaged in the Cargill Dow product earlier this month.

But Clemson wants to develop a homegrown South Carolina corn based plastic product. "By finding commercial applications for Clemson research, Tetramer is fueling South Carolina's knowledge based economy," said Earl Wagener, CEO of Tetramer. "We're creating jobs that will help keep the top researchers coming out of the university."

Wagener, a 1967 Clemson graduate in physical organic chemistry, returned to South Carolina to head the company. Wagener has 36 years of new product commercialization and venture capital experience at Stepan Co. and The ChemQuest Group Inc. and Dow Chemical.

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