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These iPhone covers from Bioserie in Hong Kong are an example of semi-durable products made from PLA blended with other biobased, renewable materials.
A new bioplastics conference emerged this June with the launch of the Bioplastek 2011 Forum on Bioplastics Today and Tomorrow, held in N.Y.C. and organized by Schotland Business Research, Inc., Skillman, N.J. This inaugural forum drew about 250 attendees, 20% from outside of the U.S., and 25% from brand owners and OEMs. About 75% indicated they were already involved with bioplastics.Presenters included representatives from H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup, Pepperidge Farm, the U.S. Army Natick Labs, Rubbermaid, Auto21, Woodridge Group, Kodak, and Xerox Canada.
Speakers presented breakthroughs in packaging, automotive, nonwovens/fibers, and emerging durables applications. Presentations from established players such NatureWorks, Telles, DuPont, Braskem and DaniMer Scientific offered updates on progress aimed at overcoming hurdles to growth in bioplastics. Companies like Laurel BioComposite, Clariant, PolyOne, and Holland Colours discussed biobased property-enhancing additives, colorants, and compounds developed over the last several years for bioplastics. Others presented information on emerging biobased precursors of conventional polymers (e.g., bio-terephthalic acid).
One theme was that drop-in bioplastics, which look just like petro-derived plastics—such as biobased PE and PET—are coming on strongly. Three reasons for this were underscored:
•Less risk and a shorter, less costly qualifying process;
•Compatibility with existing recycling streams;
•Brand owners and OEMs favor them.
All three of these reasons apply to packaging such as bottles. But the forum emphasized that the automotive industry also favors “bio” drop-ins, especially for the first reason above. Automakers are looking for reliability and long service life, which makes them more risk-averse. Non-durable industries like nonwovens and fibers are more open to trying out unfamiliar biobased polymers.
The race to replace petro-derived PET bottles with biobased ones was kick-started by recent dual announcements. First, H.J. Heinz Co. plans to use Coca-Cola’s 30% plant-based PET PlantBottle for packaging its famous ketchup. Then PepsiCo announced a 100% plant-based PET bottle. While biobased ethylene glycol derived from sugar cane is already available to replace 30% of the fossil-based ingredients in PET, there is still a challenge to develop biobased PTA, which comprises 70% of the polymer.
A dozen or so companies have been working to develop cost-effective processes to produce biobased building blocks for PET such as PTA and paraxylene. Some sources claim that these biobased drop-in replacements can be more cost-effective than the petro-based versions. Commercialization for most of them appears to be about three to four years away.
A different approach has been taken by the Dutch firm Avantium, which has opted to use furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA) as a replacement for PTA, to produce PEF (polyethylen furanoate) instead of PET. The company says FDCA is a less expensive building block. It showed off stretch-blown PEF bottles made on existing PET equipment and looking much the same as conventional PET, but reportedly having superior barrier and other properties.
Laurel BioComposite LLC, Laurel, Neb. (laurelbiocomposite.com), has produced the first commercial resin enhancer from lignin-based biomass. A complex organic compound found in the cell walls of plants, lignin binds with cellulose to impart strength to trees and other plant materials. Its abundant availability, low cost, and excellent strength properties have led companies like Laurel to explore use of lignin-based additives in plastics.
The initial feedstock is the organic residue left over from corn ethanol production. It is a subjected to a proprietary lignin-conversion technology, and the resulting additive is called LignoMaxx, which can markedly enhance strength of thermosets and thermoplastics.
It can be used at higher loadings than most biobased fillers and can replace 20% to 40% of the base resin. Availability is slated for mid-2012.
NatureWorks, Minnetonka, Minn. (natureworksllc.com), presented the latest developments with its Ingeo PLA including a major project under way to produce new high-performance grades, including injection molding resins with much faster cycle times. The company also plans to assess opportunities for these new Ingeo grades in thermoforming, film extrusion, injection stretch-blow molding, and foam extrusion.
Among recent novel applications for Ingeo PLA, NatureWorks highlighted the first switch to environmentally friendly packaging for a leading yogurt product in Europe. Danone in Germany and Switzerland is now offering its Activia yogurt in a PLA cup. Danone plans to expand PLA packaging to Activia drinks, yogurt fruit puree, and larger consumer formats.
Also new is the iPhone 4 cover launched last year by Hong-Kong- based Bioserie. A proprietary blend of PLA and other biobased components is used for a case that is slim and light and provides outstanding protection while made of all-natural, annually renewable resources.
China’s Ningbo Tianan Biologic Materials Ltd., the world’s largest producer of PHBV biopolymer, discussed recent advances, particularly in blends for injection molding and fibers. PHBV is produced by bacterial fermentation and is biodegradable in soil, water, and standard composting conditions. Tianan (U.S. representative in Wayzata, Minn., jimluntllc.com) is focusing on applications for 100% PHBV in cosmetics and medical parts, and blends of PHBV with PLA and other renewable polymers for other injection molding and fiber applications. Blending PHBV and PLA is said to yield higher temperature performance than straight PLA, lower moisture vapor transmission, and a wider property spectrum.
Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., considers itself a leader in biomaterials development for the automotive sector, moving beyond fuel efficiency toward incorporating more sustainable materials. The Plastics Research Group, part of Ford’s Research & Innovation Center, has been developing biomaterials for nearly a decade.
Its efforts to date have focused on soy-based urethane foams, natural-fiber reinforced composites, and polymer resins made from plant sources. The 2007 Ford Mustang was the first vehicle to use soy-based PUR foam in seat cushions and backs, and today, soy-based foam is used in nearly every North American Ford vehicle. Last year, the company was first to introduce a wheat-straw-filled PP, which was used for an injection molded storage bin and inner lid in the interior of the 2010 Flex.
Ford has three current goals in its biobased resin research. One is overcoming performance and durability issues of neat PLA with nucleating agents, impact modifiers, and moisture inhibitors. A second is to evaluate the processability and performance of renewably sourced nylons—high-performance grades derived from castor oil (nylon 1010, 11, 610, and 410). Ford’s third goal is exploring the emerging arena of traditional polymers( PP, PE, PET, PBT) made from renewable resources.
Sustainability engineer Alex Capecelatro from Fisker Automotive, Anaheim, Calif., said the automotive sector needs biobased alternatives primarily for TPO, PC/ABS, PP, and carbon fiber. For its Fisker Karma, one of the first electric vehicles with extended range, the company is focusing on biobased instrument panels and other interior applications.
Among other automakers, Lexus aims to use bio-PET to cover 80% of interior surfaces (carpet, headliners, door panels, etc.) by end of this year. Toyota uses PLA in all of its Prius lines (e.g., fiber for its floor mats) and aims to increase by 20% its usage of eco-plastics and recycled plastics by 2015. And Mazda’s Premacy Hydrogen RE hybrid vehicle features 80% PLA in its interior, including the seat fabric, lower panel, shift panel, front console, glove-box lid, and hydrogen tank cover.