Two leaders in the development of
sustainable polymers are extending research into a new generation of
engineering plastics made from renewable resources.
The research mates Ingeo polylactic acid from NatureWorks of Minnetonka, MN, with furanic
chemicals developed by Avantium of Amsterdam,
"We find the material intriguing with a host of potential
market applications," says Steve Davies, director of corporate communications
and public affairs at NatureWorks. "Before we can make a solid assessment, more
research on a larger scale needs to be conducted. The research and development
From a chemist's perspective, furanics are a family of
aromatic unsaturated polyesters, while polylactide is an aliphatic polyester. Davies
says they would complement each other in how they offer alternatives to
traditional petroleum-based polymers.
Furanics are chemicals that are formed when you take
carbohydrates and remove the water. Avantium says it has developed a patented
chemical catalytic process technology to convert biomass directly into
In comparison to biological production technology, such as
fermentation widely used to make bioplastics, Avantium's catalytic process has these
conversion takes seconds to minutes, while fermentation takes several days.Adaptability.
catalytic process can be run using existing chemical industry infrastructure.Costs.
catalyst used in a chemical process costs less than 1 cent per gallon of end
product. Enzymes used in fermentation processes are typically 6 to 65 cents per
gallon of end product, according to Avantium.
Avantium partnered with NatureWorks to develop commercial
plastics for its technology. But it looks like a long road. There are no plans
at the moment to develop production facilities even though the partnership is
now a year old.
"It is simply too early, and like any new-to-the-world
material, much needs to be learned about it first," Davies says. "Commercial
production would require both a new monomer production process and an
understanding of the most desirable compositions ... If we had to estimate a time
for commercialization, our best estimate would be that commercial samples may
be available in several years."
Potential markets are personal electronics, automotive,
fibers and various engineering plastics applications.
Avantium, which calls its process YXY, was founded in 2000
by Royal Dutch Shell, Eastman Chemical, Akzo-Nobel and Pfizer to develop
catalysts for chemical and refinery applications.
NatureWorks was launched in 1997 as a Cargill research
project looking for uses of plant carbohydrates as plastics' raw materials.
NatureWorks LLC is now an independent company owned by Cargill and is one of
the world's largest producers of bioplastics.