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Disappearing Pens Cross Out Petroleum

December 21, 2011 - 5:32pm

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The interactive graphic above illustrates what products are derived from a barrel of oil and what we're doing to offset them with renewable alternatives. | Graphic courtesy of EERE.

Magicians and aspiring spies have been using disappearing ink for eons, but thanks to Energy Department sponsored research we now can make the pens disappear as well. Traditional pens often contain a number of compounds that cannot be recycled, and as a result billions of pens are poured into landfills across the globe each year. This new line of pens, produced by Paper Mate, aims to drive those numbers down by utilizing a biodegradable bioplastic called Mirel instead of traditional plastics, which are often derived from petroleum. Incorporating Mirel into their products has allowed Paper Mate to produce a pen that can withstand the rigors of regular use, offering the heat and moisture resistance that customers expect from their pens -- biodegrading only when buried in soil or compost.

This innovation not only reduces waste, it also plays a valuable role in offsetting our need for foreign oil. That’s because the raw materials required to make most plastic products – such as utensils, plates, pens, bottles and packaging materials -- come from petroleum. Bioplastics such as Mirel allow us to displace petroleum in these popular products, effectively reducing our reliance on oil and boosting our national security.

So how do bioplastics like Mirel get developed and commercialized? Mirel’s story began in 2000 with a $7.5 million grant from the Energy Department to Metabolix, a bioscience company focused on providing sustainable solutions for the world's needs. The five-year grant originally focused on biomass crop genetic engineering, but the Department worked with Metabolix to transfer the activity to other areas such as fatty acid recovery, polymer science, and fatty acid bioplastic applications. This shift began the development of Mirel’s formulation technology.

Over the course of their research, Metabolix developed a process that uses plant and microbial biochemistry and bioengineering technologies to produce and commercialize renewable and biodegradable polymers. The chemical building block molecule of these polymers is a fatty acid called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) -- of which Mirel is derived. The development of these PHA-derived bioproducts lead to a joint venture between Metabolix andArcher Daniel Midland, called Telles, which is focused on translating these research breakthroughs into commercial products.

Today, Telles runs a facility in Clinton, Iowa, which has been fully operational since 2010 and is designed to produce over 50,000 tons of Mirel per year. Mirel has received approval for medical and food industry applications, which ensures that it will continue to expand into new product lines, creating a more sustainable industry while furthering the effort to replace the entire barrel of oil, not just the fuel.

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