(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a four-part series describing the five and one-half year technology commercialization journey that resulted in the recent announcement that Domtar had taken a major interest in Prisma Renewable Composites.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“As I sit here thinking about it, I can materially show three clear pivots, but all them involved the valorization of lignin,” Adam McCall says of the five and one-half year non-linear path he has followed to commercialize a process that employs technologies licensed from the University of Tennessee (UT) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to produce advanced composites and polymers.
In July, those efforts were greatly enhanced when Domtar Corporation (see our teknovation.biz article) acquired a majority interest in Prisma Renewable Technologies, the Knoxville-based spin-off of TennEra LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UT Research Foundation. The Fort Mill, SC-based corporation, which has annual sales of more than $5 billion dollars, will help commercialize the process of using lignin to make engineered plastic compounds such as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and other high-value fiber and lignin applications.
“We will be using the supply chain that Domtar offers as the primary precursor for raw material (i.e., lignin) to stage our product development path,” McCall, Prisma’s President and Chief Executive Officer, told us in an extended interview.
With Domtar and its suppliers providing the raw material, Prisma will be focused on finding customers for the formulations that it will make. Initially, the top priority end user is the automotive sector although consumer electronics and personal care products are other priorities.
“We have a carefully phased product pathway, with each phase resulting in the deployment of higher value materials,” McCall added.
As for how these materials will be produced, McCall says, “I believe in the power of strategic partnerships and sticking to core competencies. Manufacturing will likely be done via contract. It will allow us to remain a fairly capital light business and allow Prisma to remain focused on the needs of the end users of our materials.”
Anyone who has followed the work of ORNL and UT researchers in low-cost carbon fiber is aware that cost is the key limitation to more widespread adoption of the material for broad-based consumer usage. While carbon fiber is used in high-end vehicles like Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and Corvettes, it is still too costly to be used in mass market vehicles like the Accord or Camry.
What are the advantages of the formulations that Prisma could market?
“Cost, performance, and sustainability,” McCall answers. “Without a legitimate plan for reducing the customer’s cost, it is hard to get in the front door. We have the potential to replace existing polymers at a lower cost, enhance key material properties, and provide bio-content through the lignin which improves carbon footprint.”
In terms of “enhanced material properties,” anyone who has heard presentations knows that carbon fiber is lighter than steel, but much stronger. Replacing heavier materials in automotive parts lightens the weight of the vehicle and increases the fuel savings.
What about the green aspect of Prisma’s work? “Our polymer formulations have lignin, and thus contain sequestered carbon,” McCall says, noting that using this organic substance is important to many industries. “I’m impressed with how sincere the automotive industry has been about a desire to reduce their carbon footprint.”
The investment from Domtar is allowing Prisma to beef-up the start-up’s staff, which, for several years had mostly been McCall. He’s adding two senior level engineers – with training and experience in chemical and civil engineering – plus a business development person from the polymer industry, a materials scientist, and a business management coordinator.
The investment will also allow Prisma to continue to sponsor research at UT and ORNL.
NEXT: How did a Blount County native with an entrepreneurial DNA come back home to lead the initiative?