Pushing Plastics

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online. By Robert Gavin

LOWELL -- Metabolix, Inc., is a Cambridge firm that genetically engineers bacteria to make a natural plastic. Its technology was developed at MIT. Its founders were MIT researchers. Its headquarters, near Kendall Square, is just a stone's throw from MIT. So, when the company needed help to turn its bacteria-made plastic into cups, utensils and other products, where did it turn? The University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

UMass-Lowell is among the nation's leading centers for plastics technology, and its plastics engineering program, the only one of its kind in the US, is helping to push the boundaries of how this versatile material is used, produced and processed. As Metabolix shows, the university's brand of applied research is reaching well beyond traditional plastics to touch everything from biotech to building materials, and, in doing so, fueling the type of innovation on which the Massachusetts economy depends.

And innovation has never been more important to plastics industry, which is facing ever-increasing competition from low-

wage nations, particularly China. In just two years, the US has swung from $894 million trade surplus in plastics -- that is exports of plastics exceeding imports -- to a deficit of $1.4 billion, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry, the national trade association. Massachusetts, among the nation's leading producers of plastics, is also feeling the squeeze from China, Inc. and other foreign competitors, industry officials say, and that is contributing to job losses. According to the state Division of Employment and Training, Massachusetts plastics manufacturers have shed nearly 2,000 jobs in the last two years, a decline of about 10 percent.

Ultimately, the future of plastics here -- as with many other Massachusetts industries -- depends on technological innovation, and that is where UMass-Lowell comes in. For example, Nypro Inc., the Clinton-based plastics company with plants in 17 countries, including China, is collaborating with UMass-Lowell to develop processes for manufacturing plastic components at tinier and tinier scales for increasingly shrinking electronics, medical devices and other cutting-edge applications.

"That's something that's not going to China," said Angelo Sabatalo, Nypro's corporate director of development and training. "It's not dependent on labor rates, it's technology."

Technology, of course, is not something that people normally associate with plastic. Say "plastic" and many think "cheap." But mention plastics at UMass-Lowell, and thoughts turn to medical devices, drug delivery systems, biodegradable golf tees and cars that never need to be painted.

Researchers at UMass-Lowell have been thinking about plastics since at least 1954, when its plastic engineering department was founded at what was then Lowell Technological Institute, and new materials, like polypropylene, polyethylene and polycarbonate, were expanding plastics to industrial and structural applications. Today, the university grants the only bachelor's degree in plastics engineering approved by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology, which sets educational standards for the engineering profession.

The department also holds about 30 patents, with more pending, on both manufacturing processes and materials that range from biodegradable plastics for medical uses, to construction aggregate, made of recycled plastic and coal ash and developed with Tufts University. To get an idea of the range of the department's research, Stephen McCarthy, a professor and director of the university's Institute for Plastics Innovation, points to two recent projects.

The first perfected a process that could lead not only to cars that never need paint, but also to a far wider variety of colors and patterns, from basic black to polka dots to wood grain. The process, now licensed to a Michigan firm, attaches a thin, glossy film to molded plastic parts in one step. That means automakers could cost-effectively make one blue, one red, and one striped car by simply changing film, as opposed to painting, which requires the production of thousands of the same color at one time to hold down costs.

Now, McCarthy is developing tiny, plastic capsules -- less than a thousandth of the diameter of a human hair -- to deliver insulin to diabetics without injections. Instead, diabetics could apply a patch holding the invisible biodegradable capsules, which, unlike insulin applied directly to the skin, penetrate the dermal layers, melt away and deliver the dose.

"Plastics are so versatile," McCarthy said. "You take a balloon, blow it up and it becomes 100 times bigger. You let out the air, and it returns to its original size. You can't do that with anything else, not glass, not wood , not metal."

Tony Armini, the chief of executive of Implant Sciences Corp. of Wakefield can also attest to the versatility of plastics. His company developed a prostate cancer treatment in which small, radioactive particles about the size of caraway seeds are implanted in the prostate to eradicate cancerous cells, and needed a way to hold them in place. Enter UMass-Lowell.

Plastics engineers helped devise a sleeve of naturally-based plastic that dissolves harmlessly into the body's system and, unlike surgical steel, eliminates the need to remove the hardware when the treatment is completed. Now, the company is working with UMass-Lowell plastics engineers to develop a silicone vessel for radiation treatment of breast cancer following a lumpectomy.

"We're physicists here, " Armini said, "and while we know a lot about radiation, we don't know much about plastics. And that's why we went to UMass-Lowell."

It was this same expertise that sent Metabolix, the Cambridge biotech with the MIT heritage, beyond Kendall Square when it came time to turn its bacteria-produced plastic into products. Since the biodegradable product has different properties than petroleum-based materials -- it breaks down faster when heated, for example -- the company needed to develop processes that would allow manufacturers to use the material without having to buy new equipment.

UMass-Lowell, with its state-of-the-art labs, tested processes, molds and additives that would make the natural plastic suitable for traditional equipment. And it has worked. Metabolix, which employs about 30 in Cambridge, plans to have products on the market by 2005.

"This is the perfect example of how a small, emerging company can benefit from a relationship with a university," said Robert Whitehouse, director of applications development at Metabolix, "And when it comes to plastics they are second to none."