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Materials Lactide

Materials Lactide Monomers for the production Article contributed by Hans van der Pol, Marketing Manager, PURAC biochem BV, Gorinchem, the Netherlands of PLA So far the focus for bioplastics developments has been in particular on the environmental and social elements. To make PLA sustainable on the long-term it is now crucial that the economic sustainability is secured. L- and D-lactide produced with PURAC technology in combination with PURAC’s value proposition for the value-chain members will allow PLA to become an attractive economic reality. Accelerating PLA potential Although many PLA applications have been developed over the last years, PLA is currently in short supply. In order for the bioplastics market to grow at the pace dictated by the customer demand, there is a need for a higher level of PLA supply. The main factors hampering the growth in supply are PLA product quality and the availability of an economically sustainable production technology as part of the PLA value-chain. The key factor in this chain is the technology to produce high purity, polymer grade, lactic acid with high carbohydrate efficiency – the core expertise of PURAC, whose technology has been optimized over decades. PLA for packaging applications was developed in the nineties but it is not until very recently that the value chain for PLA applications has been seriously expanded. The Kyoto protocol and the associated trading schemes for carbon dioxide certificates are providing companies with real incentives to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in more environmentally benign technologies and products. Bioplastics and bio-fuels are at the forefront of this trend. Market opportunities With improvements in PLA supply and quality as well as development of value added applications it is expected that the market for PLA can grow to a level of several hundreds of ktons over the next 10 years. The bioplastics industry is still in a very early stage of its development. Institutional, legal and policy framework conditions are adjusted continuously in order to stimulate a continuous growth of sustainable materials. The market for traditional polymers is over 250 mio tons and growing. Many framework conditions for these traditional polymers actually act as barriers for the new polymers. The bioplastics industry has grown so far without the huge subsidies heaped upon bioethanol. The opportunities to capitalize on this are immense. The total consumption of biodegradable polymers stood at around 140 ktons in 2006, with packaging representing 31% of the total consumption. The projected growth for PLA in this segment is estimated 23% per year. With improvements in technology, higher value added applications such as fibers and engineering plastics can be developed. Such higher value added applications are important to turn a bio-based economy into reality, as it will improve the economic sustainability of the value-proposition. Retailers and brand-owners recognize possibilities to capitalize on the sustainability trend by re-branding their image as an environmentally conscious company 22 bioplastics MAGAZINE [07/04] Vol. 2

Materials by incorporating innovative bio-based packaging solutions into their product lines. This allows them to create additional added value to their customers, who are also becoming more environmentally conscious. The use of annually renewable resources as a feed-stock is the main driving force behind sustainable plastics in the 21st century. Biodegradability of PLA packaging materials is an advantage in those countries that have an industrial composting infrastructure in place. However, no material can find a sustainable position in the market without the right functional attributes. For many applications the biodegradability has no added value, and PLA is perfectly stable under normal use conditions. Added value The added value of PLA polymers comes in the first place from its unique combination of properties, such as very high optical clarity, good mechanical properties, gas and water barrier properties, etc.. These properties can be influenced and further improved or modified by value added polymer technologies, such as compounding, copolymerization, combining materials or films with different properties or applying nano-technologies. Properties that will need improvement to make the polymer applicable to high-end applications are its heat deformation temperature and its impact strength. For bottle applications for example the gas barrier properties needs improvement. PLA Value proposition Due to its strong technology position in lactic acid, moving one step further in the value-chain is a logical step for PURAC. This enables polymerand plastics producers to make the step into PLA bioplastics. PURAC itself has in-depth experience with PLA in the relatively small, but high value added market of medical-grade lactide monomers and polymers. The scale to economically produce lactide is much bigger than the scale to economically produce PLA. In PURAC’s concept, polymer producers will not need to invest in complex lactide technology, but can focus instead on their core expertise: adding value through the production of specialized PLA (co-)polymers. By allowing PLA producers to bioplastics MAGAZINE [07/04] Vol. 2 23

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