Accelerating the Future...
- FINALIST : Environment
- Award Year: 2019
- Nominee URL: https://www.mobius.co/
Fossil fuels are the primary feedstocks for plastics and although manufacturers are looking for alternatives, most are not economically viable and/or suffer from poor performance. Fossil-fuel based plastics are also not biodegradable and with plastic recycling rates below 10%, they remain in the environment for thousands of years. Industries like agriculture and horticulture use millions of tons of single-use plastic products each year to produce food and are looking for new material solutions.
We have a technology platform for 100% bio-based, naturally degradable and compostable materials that serve as drop-in replacements for fossil-based plastics. Our biopolymers are composed primarily of lignin, a naturally occurring material found in all biomass, that is produced at over 100 million tons per year as the primary waste product of the paper and biofuel industries. We can also tune the physical properties and biodegradation rates of our materials, to make products like flower pots.
Existing plastics on the market have grown in popularity, but have a few intrinsic flaws that serve to limit their adoption from performance, feedstock sourcing, and price issues. Key to the performance is the actual ability for these plastics to degrade in different environments. "Biodegradable" is an ill-defined term across the world, and does not differentiate between ocean, soil, and compost environments and is non-descript with regard to temperature and moisture. Most of these plastics, like polylactic acid (PLA) are only degraded under thermophilic composting conditions (>40 degrees C). This only occurs in managed, industrial composting operations and not in a backyard compost pile, and certainly not in the soil where a flower pot may be placed. Second on this list is feedstock sourcing. A large amount of current bioplastic material is made from food-based resources like corn. Inevitably, the scaling of these materials inherently competes with arable land that is limited in the world, where useful food for human consumption can be grown. Lastly, there is price. Many existing and emerging technologies for degradable plastics require volume- and energy-intensive water-based processes like fermentation to produce materials. To gain scale, reactors need to be tens to hundreds of thousands of gallons just to produce a few hundred pounds of material per day, directly increasing the price. Our solution attempts to tackle all three of these issues. With regard to performance, our materials are degradable along the full spectrum from soils under ambient conditions you would find in your home garden, to compost under thermophilic conditions you might find in an industrially managed facility. We're actively working on the tunability of this degradation as well, with the goal of having different grades of material that degrade faster or slower, depending on the desired application. In additon, where current bioplastics degrade into water and CO2, they drain nitrogen from the soil for microorganisms to perform this process and add no long-term contribution to the soil itself. Our materials degrade into water, CO2, and carbon-rich organic compost. We hope to demonstrate that this can improve soil quality by increasing the amount of organic carbon stored in the soil, allowing for improved water and nutrient retention. Second, the feedstocks used. Our primary feedstock is lignin, a waste product of the paper and biorefinery industry. Lignin is the naturally occuring glue that holds all woody plants and trees together allowing them to grow tall. With the nearly 100 million tons of lignin produced every year, less than 2% of it is used in any product - the majority of it is landfilled or burned for low-value energy return. Our process allows lignin to be a primary component in our materials, and is a non-food based waste resource from existing biomass feedstocks that would otherwise go underused. We like to refer to this as a carbon-advantaged material. Lastly, with regard to price. Our process does not use any water-based systems or biological systems such as fermentation. All of our materials are produced using standard plastics processing equipment, and with that we are able to rapidly scale without the need for large volumes of solvents or water, consistent monitoring of microorganism populations, and costly separations. Essentially, our raw materials go in one end and the finished product comes out the other with nearly zero waste. This allows us to not only avoid costly infrastructure, but allows for the use of incredibly high-throughput equipment and rapid ROI when it comes to the long term investment potential for this type of innovation.
The largest barrier we have is scalable adoption, and reaching meaningful economies of scale to be able to compete on price with the current low-cost commodity thermoplastics that are dominating the industries we would like to help disrupt. While we are very confident in the physical properties of our materials being capable of meeting the needs of our initial target markets in agriculture and horticulture, we know full well that those industries are very price driven. We need to reach larger scales of production to ensure that our COGS can remain low to help us be competitive on price, or that we must demonstrate that our materials can deliver additional value to the end consumer, such that that value is communicated from an acceptance by that consumer in the form of a slightly higher price point that can work backward through the supply chain and with an amount significant enough to bolster our revenues to cover the additional COGS. Or - perhaps some hybrid of the two (scale and value). Building this scale potential is challenging for a relative newcomer to the industry as we're novices in the eyes of investors and partners. More partners as of late seem very willing and eager to work with us, but investors want to see more work done, more customers lined up, more traction of any sort. Once we are able to demonstrate that there is a path for scalability (even if we do not own it) and value, we should be able to begin to break out of that shell. We'll likely find other sources of capital that are more comfortable funding infrastructure and equipment needs necessary to bring the material to meaningful scale. Hitting the production side of scale will allow us to then focus our efforts on increasing the impact our business can have by developing more application technologies around the core materials, whether it is degradable cutlery to degradable coatings, we've got a lot of great areas we can work on to continue to break down that barrier of scale.
With the power we have in chemistry, biology, and engineering, we can recognize the responsibility we have to close the waste broken loop. Together we can move beyond the old ideals of landfills. These are not full of trash, not “litter”. These are our resources waiting for us to return them to the earth properly, or convert them into the next generation of building blocks, fuels, chemicals, and materials our society needs.