As they become more reliable and useable, fully biodegradable and plant-based plastics are getting a lot of attention, however, they are not the be-all-end-all answer to sustainability on a wide scale. The fact is, polylactic acid based plastic, or PLA, is still quite costly to produce and not yet an alternative to familiar petroleum-based plastics. However, new research may have uncovered a simplified, waste-free and less expensive means of producing PLA. The resulting process may actually make PLA materials almost on-par with conventional, petroleum-based plastic.
“The KU Leuven researchers developed a new technique. ‘We have applied a petrochemical concept to biomass’, says postdoctoral researcher Michiel Dusselier. ‘We speed up and guide the chemical process in the reactor with a zeolite as a catalyst. Zeolites are porous minerals. By selecting a specific type on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores. Our new method has several advantages compared to the traditional technique: we produce more PLA with less waste and without using metals. In addition, the production process is cheaper, because we can skip a step’.”
As the patent on the new process has been sold to an independent chemical company, development and distribution of a cheaper PLA may soon be available for a range of industries. PLA still is not expected to fully replace many conventional plastic products, especially those that require exceptional durability, but it’s already making waves in many industries.
Would access to a cheaper bioplastic have an impact on your manufacturing or product development process? Do you think PLA will be as revolutionary for the plastics industry as some are projecting? Share your input in the comments.