Looking for a challenge: Matthew Hilliard works hard to refine and improve at Danimer Scientific

Published 3:28 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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Bainbridge is home to several large manufacturing businesses most residents know by name; A-1 Industries and Taurus being some of the foremost. Another business most are well aware of is Danimer Scientific. Originally founded in Bainbridge in 2004, the company’s main claim to fame is its work in bioplastics, touting its PHA biopolymer used in biodegradable products. With the seemingly ever-growing push for more environmentally friendly products, Danimer’s polymers have been the subject of some industry hype. The processes necessary for manufacturing these materials require skilled chemical engineers to produce them.

Matthew Hilliard is one of these chemical engineers, managing Danimer’s commercial demonstration plant.

“I wanted to be an engineer from a pretty early age,” Hilliard said. “I’d say middle school to high school, I kind of had the seed planted.” He stated that he enjoys being challenged, with chemistry being the most challenging course he had in high school.

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“When I was in high school I was like, ‘I wanna be a chemical engineer,’” he recalled. “Like I said, I didn’t really know exactly what chemical engineers did at the time, but it was something that I wanted to do.”

Originally from Pelham, Georgia, Hilliard attended Georgia College in Milledgville, where his love of math and science ultimately led to him graduating with three Bachelor’s degrees, those being chemistry, math and physics.

After graduating from Georgia College, he would go on to acquire a PHD from Auburn University. His dissertation was focused on biofuels, before shifting his postdoctoral research to methane recovery. It was this work that would lead Hilliard, who had never heard of Danimer before, to the company.

“One of the byproducts was a bioplastic, or a biopolymer,” he said, “and through that research and through that work, became familiar with what Danimer was doing.” Hilliard would join Danimer in 2021.

“I was very excited to hear about opportunities at Danimer,” he said. “I also am very excited about the product that we make, it’s something that I have a passion for.”

Danimer’s production process revolves around fermenting and extracting the fat byproduct (PHA) from bacteria that have been fed canola oil. This biopolymer is then used in the production of biodegradable products.

“What I do specifically at Danimer, here in Bainbridge we’re the R&D facility,” Hilliard said, “again, process optimization, process design. I actually manage a team of engineers and technicians that run fermentation processes, as well as what we call ‘downstream processes’, which is where we actually isolate and purify the PHA.”

The whole process takes roughly seven days to complete. Hilliard’s role in process optimization involves developing new processes to reduce the cost of production, while also making the product “more consistent and cleaner”.

“I think it’s a very exciting time for Danimer, but also for Bainbridge,” Hilliard said. “Growing up here and coming to Bainbridge quite a bit, we always enjoyed coming to Bainbridge, but it was kind of like most South Georgia rural towns. But now that we’re seeing a lot of exciting movement, with Taurus coming… Danimer growing and expanding and having a headquarters here, I think it’s really exciting. I think there’s a lot coming in the near future to be excited about.”