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Corn Starch Based SAP Could Find Home in Diapers

By Karen McIntyre, editor | February 9, 2017

Tethis offers potential environmental benefits, price stability

A team of North Carolina researchers have developed a bio-based superabsorbent polymer that can use corn starch and other renewable feedstocks instead of petroleum-based ingredients, creating a product that is not only greener than current offerings but also more economically predictable.

“A lot of the interest in the product is supply chain hedging issues,” says Tethis cofounder and CEO Scott Bolin. “All of the synthetic absorbents are made in 16 plants around the world and they are all riding the oil and gas pricing wave, so when oil prices go up so do their prices.”

Started by a team of researchers as part of the entrepreneurial program at North Carolina State University, Tethis spun off from the university in 2012 and has since then been focusing on the commercialization of its Tethex SAP technology.

Initially, the company has only a small research line but is currently ramping up its pilot line and hopes to be able to make 10,000 tons of the material by next year, up from its projected capacity of about 700-1000 tons this year. The added technology will allow potential customers to sample technology.

Of course, 10,000 tons is a small drop in the bucket when you consider the size of the multi-billion global baby diaper market. Even just one line at a major player like Procter & Gamble or Kimberly-Clark would need far more than that to fulfill its needs.

Bolin doesn’t consider this an obstacle. Having this capacity in place will allow potential customers to create a prototype of a product using Tethex, either alone or in a blend with a synthetic SAP. If this prototype is successful, investment in the the biobased SAP is less complicated than its synthetic counterparts..

Unlike synthetic SAPs, which need to be collocated near a petroleum source and can take multiple years to complete, this technology is manufactured with a low CAPEX and OPEX and can be located close to the consumer and easily scaled to meet demand.

“It is not as complicated or as expensive on a per pound basis as synthetic SAP, which has to be co-located with other chemicals,” Bolin explains.

The cost issue may be even more attractive than Tethex’s green profile as most diaper manufacturers focus on economics first.

“Across the industry, what we see is they know the customer wants a greener alternative but the manufacturer has heartburn about the economics,” Bolin says. “We have seen biobased products in the past but they have not stood up in the price comparison.”