As mentioned several times in previous articles, polylactic acid (PLA) is the most promising bioplastic. So I felt it was time to contribute an article to the current market situation of PLA and its monomer lactic acid.
Lactic acid has a variety of applications in the food and beverage sector as a preservative. It is further used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, as an industrial solvent and a starting material in the production of lactate esters. Lactic acid is also used in personal care products, due to its moisturising properties. But by far the biggest growth is in the bioplastic industry.
PLA has a wide range of applications including computer and mobile phone casings, biodegradable medical implants, foil, moulds, tins, cups, bottles and packaging devices. Its characteristics resemble conventional fossil fuel based plastics such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It can easily be processed on manufacturing facilities that already exists for the production of common petrochemical based plastics – no further industrial investments are required. PLA is mostly produced by the fermentation of starch from crops, commonly corn, wheat or sugarcane into lactic acid followed by subsequent polymerization.
Initially, I recommend watching an entertaining video produced by the American Chemical Society. It provides a nice explanation (suitable for non-chemists) on the pros and cons of bioplastics – especially PLA.
Bioplastics in general are expected to grow 20% -30% per year! Lactic acid demand in particular, is projected to an annual growth of at least 10%. So, this is sufficient motivation to glance at the most important players in this skyrocketing business.
Nature Works LLC, the world’s largest PLA producer runs a manufacturing facility in Nebraska, USA, with an annual capacity of 140,000 tons. The company claims to apply a unique technology to the processing of natural plant sugars to create the polylactide polymer marketed under the Ingeo™ brand name. Recently, Nature Works has been in talks with potential partners including PTT Plc to jointly invest in a large scale bioplastic plant in Thailand worth about $400 million.
The Hong Kong based firm bioserie is using NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA resin for covers of iPhones, tablet PCs and MP3 player.
A further big player in this business is the Dutch company Purac. As announced recently, Purac is in discussions with the Thai polyester supplier Indorama Ventures PLC for the construction of a new PLA plant in Rayong, Thailand. The facility is expected to start with an initial capacity of 10,000 tons per year and being capable of expanding to 100,000 tons.
Purac estimates that the global lactic acid market is currently at 250,000 tons excluding the volume used to produce PLA.
In December 2010 the company declared that it has developed a PLA compound with heat stability and impact strength comparable to ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene: a common thermoplastic). This material utilizes stereo-complex technology which is based on Purac’s unique L-Lactide and D-Lactide monomers for the second generation PLA.
In mid-2010 Purac has joined a consortium that will develop a process to produce lactic acid feedstock from cellulosic waste derived from the pulp and paper industry.
Belgium based Galactic is another leading supplier in lactic acid world market and owns manufacturing units in Europe, Asia and America. In 2002 Galactic, in joint venture with BBCA Biochemical, opened the largest manufacturing unit in Asia for the production of L-lactic acid.
In September 2007 Galactic and Total Petrochemicals established Futerro, a 50/50 joint venture to develop technology for PLA production from renewable vegetable resources. Futerro has already inaugurated its 1,500 tons per year PLA plastic pilot plant last year in Escanaffles, Belgium.
The company also developed the PLA recycling concept LOOPLA to provide an end-of-life option for PLA wastes. LOOPLA offers the possibility of directly going back to the original monomer lactic acid by PLA hydrolysis. (I recently published an article about PLA recycling)
Watch the video about the way from lactic acid to biorenewable PLA and the LOOPLA concept, provided by Galactic (this video is also featured in the PLA recycling article):
In January this year it has been reported that Thailand’s Science and Technology Ministry plans to form a joint venture with PTT Chemical Plc, Siam Cement Group and Mitr Phol Group to build a 10,000 tons per year polylactic acid pilot plant to supply materials for the production of biodegradable plastic.
In 2010 Uhde Inventa Fischer, started up its 500 tons per year polylactic acid pilot plant in Guben, Germany.
Aside from the mentioned players some further companies like Archer Daniels Midland Company, Lati, Plaxica, Teijin Chemicals, Synbra (producing PLA based BioFoam), Pyramid Bioplastics, FKuR (BIO-FLEX), Musashino Chemical Co. and Zhejiang Hisun Biomaterials are also strengthen their efforts to develop and market lactic acid based products.