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Cow Gas to Plastics


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NatureWorks invests in commercial-scale development of methane-to-lactic acid fermentation.


PLA has made some pretty major strides in commercial applications, ranging from packaging and food serviceware to filaments for additive manufacturing. Now, NatureWorks, Minnetonka, Minn., has just launched its $1-million, 8,300-ft2 laboratory at its world headquarters. The new lab represents the latest milestone in a multi-year program to commercialize a fermentation process for transforming methane—a potent greenhouse gas, into lactic acid, the building block of the company’s Ingeo biopolymer PLA. Six new scientist are being hired to staff the new facility.


The methane-to-lactic acid research began in 2013 as a joint effort between NatureWorks and Calysta Energy, Menlo Park, Calif., to develop a fermentation biocatalyst. In 2014, laboratory-scale fermentation of lactic acid from methane utilizing a new biocatalyst was proven, and the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.5 million to the project.


The opening of the new lab represents a major step toward commercial reality. As company CEO Bill Suehr put it, “A commercially viable methane-to-lactic acid conversion technology would be revolutionary. It diversifies NatureWorks away from the current reliance on agricultural feedstocks, and with methane as feedstock, it could structurally lower the cost of producing Ingeo. It is exciting to envision a future where greenhouse gas is transformed into Ingeo-based compostable food serviceware, personal care items such as wipes, diapers, durable products such as computer cases and toys, film for wrapping fresh produce, filament for 3D printers, deli packaging, and more.”


Based on its research collaboration with Calysta, NatureWorks hopes to subsequently develop a 25,000-ft2 pilot plant in Minnesota by 2018 and hire an additional 15 employees. The company is aiming, within the next six years, to potentially construct a $50-million demonstration project. Company officials feel that it is conceivable that within the next decade, NatureWorks will bring online the first global-scale methane-to-lactic acid fermentation facility.


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