Sponsored By
Karen Laird

September 30, 2016

3 Min Read
Corbion seeks allies on alternative feedstock for PLA project

Last week, lactic acid producer Corbion (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) organized an extremely well attended and highly worthwhile get-together in Amsterdam at a venue overlooking the city’s IJ river. The goal was an ambitious one: to join forces on second-generation feedstock for PLA. As had been previously announced, the company had already successfully produced PLA based on second generation feedstock at lab scale. Commercializing the technology, however, will require significant investment and partnering throughout the value chain.  Corbion is therefore seeking to form a consortium of enthusiastic partners to share the burden.

“We’re investing in second generation organisms,” said CEO Tjerk de Ruiter. “We’re also looking at new molecules, such as biosuccinic acid and FDCA. But nothing will happen without market pull. Today we’re here together to see if we can make things go a little faster.”

As he pointed out, first generation feedstock sources for PLA produce perfectly good PLA, but continue to give rise to discussion. As Corbion enters the PLA market, the question facing the company – and in a more general sense, the industry -  is that of where to focus its resources: what is the right way forward?

“Feedstocks in general are a hot topic,” said Corbion bioplastics marketing director François de Bie. “Especially when it comes to bioplastics. Bioplastics do not compete with food or feed as regards arable land use. But public perception is different.”

In the course of the search for second-generation feedstocks, Corbion has evaluated anywhere from 200 to 350 different sources, and successfully produced PLA a small amount of PLA based on lactic acid derived from woodchips and bargasse. Technical program manager Peter Baets: “We carried out production of lactic acid via a feedstock agnostic process. The challenge is now to scale the process up. For example, the lactic acid produced from these C5 and C6 sugars contains far more impurities than with first-generation feedstock. Because it is non-volatile lactic acid, it is also much harder to separate the product from the impurities. Right now it’s a conversion process with high yield losses. The economic optimization is on track for commercialization in 2020.”

The idea of forming a consortium to push the project ahead is bold, but it has captured the attention of the industry. The workshop was attended by some 75 representatives from research institutes, industrial companies, venture capitalists, even competitors from all around the world. As Marc Lankveld, senior director of biobased innovations put it: “Is there a market? According to the signals we’ve received – yes. Is it technologically feasible? We’ve already done it. We need to join together to make it happen.”

He continued: “We need enthusiastic members to create a value chain for PLA based on alternative feedstocks. Can we realize this?”

The workshop then continued in the form of breakout sessions, during which the numerous aspects of this question were discussed, debated and evaluated by the participants. In the end, it became clear that this workshop was merely the first step in a process that was unanimously felt to be a route worth pursuing. 

As Tjerk de Ruiter concluded: “I believe we underestimate what consumers are looking for. We want to put more sustainable products on the market. We’re building a PLA market and this is an opportunity to look for areas to use second-generation PLA. We need communication, we need to invest, but we, as Corbion, are here to make this happen and hope we can find partners to help us. Wouldn’t that be great!”

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