UML Prof receives patent for plastics innovation

06/21/2007
By From the Boston Globe

It was 12 years ago that Stephen McCarthy of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell started developing a high-performance, biodegradable plastic that wouldn't contribute to global warming.

Four years later, the method he devised of blending two biodegradable plastics to make them more usable received U S Patent No. 5,883,199. Soon, the Tyngsborough resident hopes to see his invention on store shelves through a licensing agreement between UMass-Lowell and the biotechnology company Metabolix Inc. of Cambridge.

McCarthy said it took "many failed attempts" before finally creating the right blend of biodegradable polymer. The technology is currently used in producing some plastic flatware, yogurt cups, and other food packaging.

"The problem is it gets brittle as it ages. It breaks, and people don't like that," McCarthy said. His polymer blend, on the other hand, greatly extends the breaking point of the plastic.

According to McCarthy, the licensing agreement will benefit the university through annual royalties plus a percentage of the company's profits from the product. Metabolix recently entered into a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland Co. to launch its new plastics business under the company name of Telles, which recently moved into the Wannalancit Mill in Lowell.

"I knew it was just a matter of time, but I was ecstatic" when the licensing deal was finalized, said McCarthy, who has traveled worldwide to present the technology at conferences. The next step, he said, is the production of stronger, environmentally friendly plastic forks and spoons, food packaging, and any number of products.

"We always get the chance to make a difference with our students, but we seldom get to make a difference through something tied so closely to business," McCarthy said. "It's very satisfying."

CINDY CANTRELL