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Bio-on hopes its bioplastics will replace metal, too (Q&A)

CEO Marco Astorri thinks his startup's plastic, derived from sugar beets, is environmentally better than ordinary plastic. In one form, it can conduct electricity, too, and auto supplier Magna's interest is piqued.

Bio-on CEO and co-founder Marco Astorri
Bio-on CEO and co-founder Marco Astorri

The automotive industry is famously reliant on the oil industry for fuel. But a partnership between Italian startup Bio-on and automotive supply giant Magna could reduce that reliance just a little by introducing plastic components derived from plants, not petrochemicals.

On Thursday, Bio-on announced an exclusive partnership with Magna International, a 125,000-employee automotive supplier to BMW and many other companies. Through the partnership, Magna will investigate "how production of this natural polyester product can be elevated to an industrial, cost-effective scale" and integrated with manufacturing processes, the companies said.

It's a feather in the cap of Marco Astorri, the company's chief executive who co-founded the company in 2007. Astorri is pushing for his bioplastic's use not just where petrochemical-based plastic is used today, but also in different applications such as plastic that's electrically conductive, which means it could in principle replace metal, too.

Even if it's not conducting electricity, its characteristics means it could replace metal, according to a study by the research lab Ghepi. Making components from plastic can mean easier manufacturing and lower weight, the company argues. And its process is flexible enough to substitute for a wide variety of plastics -- polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene, among others.

Bio-on got its start in Bologna, Italy and has a test plant a few miles north near one of Italy's biggest sugar refinery. The two founders funded the company themselves, with no bank debt or venture-capital funding, and it's now got six labs in the US and Italy and 32 employees.

Astorri talked with CNET's Stephen Shankland about Bio-on. Here's an edited transcript.

Q: What is the source of your plastic?
Marco Astorri: Our bioplastic is made by processing residues of sugar production from both beet and cane, using a natural process without the use of organic chemical solvents. In brief, plastic powder is produced by patented bacteria nourished by beet juices.

Is the electrical conductivity just a theoretical possibility, or have you demonstrated that?
It has been demonstrated by a team of researchers and internationally patented. The preliminary results of the study were presented in Rome in October at the International Conference on Biodegradable and Biobased Polymers and at Maker Fair Rome on October 3.

Have customers shown interest in the electrically conducting plastics? What customers, and for what purposes?
Yes. We can't disclose the name of the companies we are discussing it with, but we can say they are in these industries: semiconductors, e-paper, phones, and sensors.

I've heard a lot about biodegradable plastics over the years. What's special about yours?
Our bioplastic is 100 percent naturally biodegradable in water and soil, is made by processing agricultural residues, and has no impact on the food chain. We are able to replace all kind of traditional oil-based plastics in use today. We [haven't heard] about a material like this in the world.

What are some examples of actual products made with your plastics?
If you talk about commercial products, we have none at the moment. The first semi-commercial product is a Flos Miss Sissi lamp, which has been produced in a limited number. We are now developing another design product that will be delivered in 2014, but this depends on the companies that use our bioplastic.

Bio-on produced bioplastic used in this new version of Flos' Miss Sissi lamp, a design originally by Philippe Starck.
Bio-on produced bioplastic used in this new version of Flos' Miss Sissi lamp, a design originally by Philippe Starck. Bio-on

We can replace almost every product that is now made by traditional plastic. We have developed and produced 30 different objects in the areas of furniture, lighting, automotive, biomedical devices, and packaging. The idea is to start licensing our material in the industries where margins are high: biomedical, electronic devices, automotive, and packaging.

If the bioplastics are biodegradable, what happens when they get wet? Can you make them waterproof, and if you do that, do they cease being biodegradable?
Our bioplastic biodegrades in a few weeks in bacteriologically impure water -- that means almost any river or sea, or in soil. The bacteria in water and soil will "eat" the plastic when the plastic is completely immersed or covered. If you imagine a bottle made by our bioplastic, the water inside is bacteriologically pure and so there's no problem. Consider also that a normal bottle of water in commerce is not completely immersed in a non pure liquid. Making our bioplastic waterproof is possible, but it makes no sense in our opinion because in every normal condition our plastic reacts like the traditional plastic.

What's the overall greenhouse gas effect of your technology? You're taking carbon from plants that take it out of the air, which seems to be a greener process than using oil as a supply, but how much energy does the processing require?
We will deliver this kind of data when the first commercial product becomes available in the market during 2014. We can say that the LCA [life cycle assessment] is positive. Consider, just as an example, that in terms of carbon absorption sugar beet is four times more efficient than forests. That means that 1 hectare of beet is like 4 hectares of forest.

Bio-on raw materials before being processed into useful plastic forms. The plastic is derived from sugar beets.
Bio-on raw materials before being processed into useful plastic forms. The plastic is derived from sugar beets. Bio-on

Oil is still inexpensive now by some measures today. What's the price difference to use your bioplastics instead of traditional petrochemical-based plastics? And what's the price difference when you make it a conducting plastic, too?
Our bioplastic is now more expensive than traditional...but we are at the very beginning and we can't be competitive with a product that has 50 years of history and million of tons production. How much more expensive it is depends on type and quantity, but if you consider the total environmental impact of Bio-on's bioplastic, we can say it is already cheaper.

Bio-on logo

What can you do with electrically conducting plastics? Can you shape things that would be harder from metal? Can you make components that weigh less than metal?
In the electronics industry, the first use of bioplastic is as a substrate for electrical circuits. Much of the plastics currently used in electronics can now be replaced by biopolymers such as Bio-on's. So bioplastic reduces the environmental impact of the device, making recovery easier and cheaper. Our research demonstrates that we can also integrate carbon nanoparticles like nanotubes and graphene into bioplastics but in this case the results are partly not complete.

How high is the electrical resistance compared to common conductors like aluminum and copper, and is heating a problem?
Heating can be a problem at very high temperatures, but this is usually not the case in the consumer electronics industry and or in many biomedical applications. If we use bioplastic as a substrate for electrical circuits, resistance is the same as in other device. It's too early to make any comparison in all the other applications.

Do the conducting plastics have the same properties as your non-conducting bio-plastics? Can they be made as durable or as flexible, for example?
Yes, but it's too early to comment on it.

Is it actually any cheaper than using metal conductors?
Yes, if we consider all the positive features of our material and the Bio-on bioplastic overall environmental balance. Consider that in many countries legislation is already requiring or will be asking the industry in the coming years to reduce the environmental impact of any production. And electronics is one of the most polluting industries -- 50 million tons of e-waste is produced worldwide every year.