Patrick R. Gruber will receive the Henry E. Millson Award for Invention from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), a recent release announced. The award recognizes inventions that are outstanding contributions to textile technology. Gruber’s invention is a green chemistry–based continuous process for producing polylactic acid fibers known as PLA.
Chemists had spent decades trying to find a renewable and environmentally safe raw material to make into plastic. Until Gruber’s discovery in 1989, no one had discovered how to make PLA from plant starches with the right properties and inexpensively enough for large-scale production.
A new fermentation and distillation process enabled cheaper purification, better optical composition control, and significant yield increases over existing practice. The patented process enabled a single plant, using a flexible manufacturing system, to produce different PLA grades for multiple markets at low cost while adhering to environmentally sound practices.
Gruber’s scientific career path started with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota. He also earned a master’s degree in business administration from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He was technology manager in search of new business at Cargill beginning in 1988. In 1997, Gruber co-founded NatureWorks LLC and served as vice president of Technology and Operations and chief technology officer until 2005.
Gruber is the editor of “Biorefineries—Industrial Processes and Products.” He holds more than 60 U.S. patents and has a number of others pending. Gruber is also the CEO of Gevo Inc., specializing in converting carbohydrates into low carbon chemicals and fuels, reducing reliance on petrochemical sources.
AATCC is a not-for-profit association that provides test method development, quality control materials, and professional networking for members in about 50 countries throughout the world.