Belgian chemists have discovered a cheaper, cleaner, way of making polylactic acid (PLA). Their invention is to be developed by a petrochemical company. Jim Drury reports.
Plastic is everywhere. Where would we be without it? But most of it's made using petrochemicals, damaging the environment. Using the sugar from maize to make polylactic acid plastic - or PLA - is increasingly common. But the process is costly and time consuming. University of Leuven researchers say they have the answer. SOUNDBITE (English) MICHIEL DUSSELIER, RESEARCHER AT UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN, SAYING: "Instead of a two-step process currently, it's a one-step process. Our process runs about 100 degrees centigrade lower in temperature and our productivities, which is kind of how much product can you make per volume of reactor per hour are much higher and our product is also much cleaner." Fermentation turns the sugar into lactic acid. Then a condensation reaction with a zeolite selectively produces lactide, removing the need for heavy metals and toxins. This lactide directly leads to high quality PLA. Researchers say their process is quicker and more efficient than traditional PLA techniques, while remaining side products can be recycled in the reactor. This could theoretically provide a zero waste process. The university has sold the patent to a petrochemical company for upscaling. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR BERT SELS, UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN, SAYING: "The impact, I think, will be very great in the sense that we now have a very competitive process, where there is a monopoly at the moment. I think there will now be much more players in the market giving you the product at much lower prices and I think this will maybe really be the start of the PLA and the bio-plastic business." PLA is industrially compostable, recyclable, and one of the few plastics suitable for 3D printing. It can't fully replace petrol-based plastics because objects like toilet drain pipes aren't meant to be biodegradable. But making PLA cheaper and greener could help the global economy and reduce pollution.