Growing R&D Activities to Develop Eco-Friendly Production Process of PLA

Newly developed cheaper and eco-friendly methods would be a great alternative for 
petroleum-based products.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable sources, such as corn starch, sugarcane, tapioca, and others. It is used majorly in packaging applications in food & beverages and other products having shorter shelf life. In addition, it is also used in textile, automotive, and construction applications due to its versatility. Easy availability of raw materials, favorable government policies, and growing consumer awareness are factors responsible for increasing usage of PLA.
Thyssenkrupp Uhde’s eco-friendly process to recycle used PLA:

Polylactic acid, also known as Bio-Based Plastics, are used in manufacturing process of variety of products. A cost-efficient process has been developed by scientists from a decade of research in the Biotechnology and Polymers division at Thyssenkrupp Uhde. Production of nonpetroleum plastic is possible with the help of this method. The first pilot plant began the production of PLA in 2011 and the associated pilot plant started the production of lactic acid in 2012.

A team of biologists, chemists, biotechnologists, and process engineers upgraded the conventional production process of lactic acid. They also filed for a patent for this new waste-free processing technique. An eco-friendly process has been developed by the company that recycles used PLA products without any loss of quality. This chemical process converts PLA into lactic acid and it can be used again as a raw material for production of PLA.

A cost effective method for production of PLA:

A new technique for production of PLA has been developed by researchers of KU Leuven Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis in Belgium. This cheaper, eco-friendly method would be a great alternative for petroleum-based products. PLA has numerous advantages over petroleum-based plastics. It is beneficial for 3D industry, medical applications, and chemical industry. In addition, it is biocompatible, compostable, recyclable, and biodegradable. One of the researchers explain the process of manufacturing using lactic acid as a main building block.

"First, lactic acid is fed into a reactor and converted into a type of pre-plastic under high temperature and in a vacuum," explained Professor Bert Sels from the Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis. "This is an expensive process. The pre-plastic – a low-quality plastic – is then broken down into building blocks for PLA. In other words, you are first producing an inferior plastic before you end up with a high-quality plastic. And even though PLA is considered a green plastic, the various intermediary steps in the production process still require metals and produce waste."

Researchers have used a petrochemical process that involves using zeolite as a catalyst. Zeolite, a porous mineral composed of silicon, aluminum, and oxygen, is put into reactor to convert lactic acid into lactide. Postdoctoral researcher Michiel Dusselier said, "By selecting a specific type [of zeolite] on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores.” This implies that the intermediary steps have been eliminated from the production process that require metals and also produce waste. This technique provides higher yields of lactide. A chemical company bought a patent for this new technique to increase the production process to industrial capacity.

Analysts studying the industry have presented a comprehensive information about changing market dynamics in research reports. Allied Market Research has published a report titled, “World Polylactic Acid Market - Opportunities and Forecast, 2014 - 2020.” As per the report, the world polylactic acid market is expected to register a CAGR of 15.9% from 2015 to 2020 and estimated to reach $736.7 million by 2020. The report provides an extensive analysis of drivers & challenges, opportunities, competitive scenario, and key manufacturers. Furthermore, the study provides value chain analysis, Porter’s five force model, and SWOT analysis of key market players.

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