Figure 2. Modules for Sulzer’s new PLA polymerization plant were trucked to the Swiss site in February 2012.Purac manufactures its polymer-grade D- and L-lactides at a new 75,000-mt/yr lactide facility in Rayong province, Thailand. These lactides originate from cane sugar or cassava starch, and are certified to be free of genetically modified organisms (GMO) — an aspect that becomes more and more important in the perception of consumers when, for example, food packaging applications are envisaged.Sulzer’s polymerization technology represents an energy efficient way to produce various PLA grades and allows fast processing and short product development times. The successful combination of Sulzer Chemtech’s three core competencies — static mixing and reaction expertise; proven experience in piloting and scale-up; and process and equipment engineering capabilities — has made the development of this novel polymer production process possible.The technology provides full scalability. This helps lower entry barriers to PLA production at smaller scales (5,000 to 20,000 mt/yr). Yet, it easily can be scaled up to world-scale, fully integrated sugar-to-PLA facilities. Such world-scale plants will open the door to PLA manufacturing that is cost competitive with oil-based polymers, while smaller-scale plants can be used to produce niche PLA grades for special applications once the market for commodity PLA is fully developed.COMMERCIALIZATION
The Synbra facility currently is the second largest PLA plant in the world and the only one to produce a greater-than-99%-pure PLLA or PDLA for stereocomplex production at a commercial scale. The Dutch company, which aims to achieve a leading position in Europe as a supplier of biodegradable polymers from renewable sources, plans to significantly increase the annual PLA capacity. Synbra also uses its PLA output to make expanded PLA foam (Biofoam), an attractive biodegradable alternative to expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam in a variety of application areas — for example, agriculture, packaging and insulation. “We looked for an industrial PLA process all over the world and found the most advanced technology available at Sulzer,” says Jan Noordegraaf, Managing Director, Synbra.By investing in its own PLA production plant, Sulzer Chemtech has demonstrated its dedication to bioplastic development. This move will enable Sulzer to support its clients in the development of new PLA applications — both by providing samples in sizable quantities and by demonstrating the feasibility of Sulzer’s PLA polymerization technology.
PHILIP NISING is director, polymer business for Sulzer Chemtech, Winterthur, Switzerland. E-mail him at [email protected].