Bioplastic, Company initiatives, studies and reports

NatureWorks expands PLA capacity

Polylactic acid (PLA)-based bioplastic producer NatureWorks announced yesterday that it will increase production of its Ingeo biopolymer capacity at Blair, Nebraska, US, from 140,000 tonnes/year to 150,000 tonnes/year — a 7% increase — because of a proprietary production equipment developed by engineering firm Sulzer Chemtech.

NatureWorks said the companies have been working for more than a year on this capital improvement project where NatureWorks contributed its lactides processing knowledge and Sulzer its equipment and engineering design expertise. NatureWorks owns patents to the new process but Sulzer has exclusive sublicensing rights worldwide.

Commissioning of the installed new equipments is expected in the first quarter of 2013. The facility will also now be able to produce new, high performance resins and lactides, according to NatureWorks.

The company said it will be introducing new high-performance Ingeo resin grades in the injection molding and fibers arenas. NatureWorks will also assess new market and applications opportunities for the technology in other processes such as thermoforming, film extrusion, blow molding and profile extrusion.

Other products coming out are high-purity, polymer-grade lactide rich in the stereoisomer meso-lactide (under the tradename Ingeo M700 lactide). NatureWorks claimed that they are the world’s first and only company to offer commercial quantities of this product. The new lactides are said to be easier to process and more cost-effective compared to racemic, L(-) and D(-) lactides in a host of industrial applications.

According to a recent report from the nova-Institute based in Hurth, Germany, annual production capacity for PLA bioplastics is expected to be around 800,000 tonnes or even 950,000 tonnes by 2020. NatureWorks is currently the biggest global producer. Other producers have a current capacity ranging between 1,500 and 10,000 tonnes/year.

As of this year, nova-Institute estimated global PLA capacity somewhere around 300,000 tonnes/year.

“There should be at least 7 sites with a capacity of over 50,000 t/year by 2020. A survey of lactic acid producers – the preliminary stage of PLA production – revealed that production capacity to meet concrete requests from customers that cannot yet be named could even rise to roughly 950,000 t/year.” – Michael Carus, managing director, nova-Institute

The report estimated 25 companies have production capacity at over 30 sites worldwide.

Another producer is the Netherlands-based Synbra Technology, which started its 5,000 tonnes/year PLA plant in Allschwil (CH) in 2011 also using Sulzer Chemtech’s polymerization process jointly developed with lactic acid producer Purac. Synbra said it plans to further expand its capacity to 50,000 tonnes/year. The company also started a 1,000 tonne/year PLA plant in Switzerland in May this year for customer testing.

Synbra has been marketing its expanded PLA foamed product under the brand BioFoam. The product is said to be an attractive biodegradable alternative to expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam in a variety of applications.

I do wonder how the Sulzer/Purac PLA processing technology compares with the Sulzer/NatureWorks technology?

According to Sulzer Chemtech, the Purac process relies upon proprietary and jointly developed polymerization technology to efficiently make a range of PLA products from Purac’s D(-) and L(-) lactides. Purac’s lactides reportedly allow the production of highly pure PLA types compared to current commercial PLA that contains a mixture of D(-) and L(-) lactides.

And as a bonus, here is a link of a map of PLA capacity worldwide, both currently in operations (green dots) and planned projects (red marks). The green blog has compiled this last year for a presentation at the Bioplastek Conference near Washington, D.C.

Let me know if any companies are missing or if I should take some of them out (such as Purac’s where I don’t know if they also produce PLA aside from lactides in Nebraska and Thailand…).

UPDATE 9/7/12:
Purac just sent the blog an email stating that the company does not produce PLA. It’s partner Synbra produces PLA using Purac’s lactides and using the Purac-Sulzer lactide-to-PLA conversion process. Purac said it has a 5,000 tonnes/year lactide factory in Spain and a 75,000 tonnes/year lactide factory in Thailand.

About Doris de Guzman

Will Green Chemistry save the world or is it hype? Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing, new technology, R&D and other sustainability initiatives aimed at preventing pollution; replacing ingredients; and using renewable feedstocks in Green Chemistry. She has been covering the oleochemicals market for 15 years and spread her beat to inorganics, biofuels and green chemistry.

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