A demonstration unit for converting bioplastics has begun its work for Futerro, a 50/50 joint venture established in September 2007 by biotech company Galactic and Total Petrochemicals, one of the world's largest petrochemcials suppliers and a leading supplier of polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.
Galactic is a large supplier of lactic acid and lactates; it has three production sites, one each in Belgium, China and the U.S.A.
The demonstration plant has been started in at Galactic's facility in Escanaffles, Belgium. The joint venture is pursuing a new avenue to the production of polylactic acid (PLA) derived from renewable vegetable origins.
The demonstration unit will be used to test a technology for producing PLA. It involves preparation of the monomer - the lactide - and its purification from lactic acid, as part of the fermentation of sugar from beets. The monomer is then polymerized to produce biodegradable plastic granulate.
Lactic acid also can be extracted from sugarcane, corn and wheat, and work is ongoing on extracting it from renewable resources like biomass (forest waste). As reported recently in our newsletter, attempts are even being made to derive some bioplastic precursors from tobacco.
The partners intend to run the 1500-tonne/yr demo unit to test and improve the successive steps in this process. Testing is expected to last about six months, at which time the JV wants to be in position to market a range of products made from lactic acid, including lactide, oligomers and PLA polymers for the packaging market, as well as grades suitable for more durable applications.