Cheaper production of bioplastics

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Michiel Dusselier, a KU Leuven researcher, developed a greener and cheaper production process for the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA).

PLA used to be produced from corn or sugar cane, but due to the high production costs, it could not serve as a valuable alternative for traditional plastics from petroleum. The costs for the production of PLA are high because it requires several intermediate steps. Dusselier has managed to remove an intermediate step. “We achieve higher yields while producing less waste and we don’t need metals anymore. Also, our production is cheaper because we eliminated an intermediate step,” explains Dusselier.

PLA is obtained by converting the sugar in maize or sugar cane via fermentation into lactic acid, which is a building block for PLA. PLA decays after a number of years and is industrially compostable and recyclable. It can also be used for medical applications, for example as suture thread that decays by itself.

Once in a while, PLA products appear in the form of compostable cups or packaging for vegetables, but a breakthrough is not yet achieved. The product meets the demand for nature-friendly and degradable packaging, but the high production cost still is a bottleneck.

Nevertheless Bert Sels, a professor at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, expects that the new technology will quickly become commonplace. “KU Leuven has patented the findings and sold them to a chemical company that will apply the production on an industrial scale.” Presumably, the French oil and gas company Total owns the patent.

The US research firm Freedonia expects an overall annual growth of 19 percent to 960,000 tons in 2017. In Belgium, Futerro is the only producer bioplastics. It is a 50/50 joint venture between Total and the biotechnology company Galactic.

(Source: De Tijd)