Cargill Dow LLC expects to be operating its 300 million-pound-per-year biodegradable polymer plant in Blair, Neb., at full capacity by the end of the year.
The 50-50 joint venture between Cargill of Minnetonka, Minn., and Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. launched production of its polylactic acid-based material in November and was making commercial-grade product by January, according to Lisa Owen, Cargill Dow's commercial leader for rigid packaging.
About half of the plant's output is going into NatureWorks-brand fibers - toll-produced by outside processors - with the other half going into biaxially oriented film, rigid applications and bottles.
Cargill Dow also is having PLA-based film and sheet products made on a toll basis.
The PLA material got some high-profile recognition at the recent Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when Coca-Cola Co. used PLA cups to serve samples of its Coke and Mad River tea products at several venues. The cups then were collected and composted.
Cargill Dow, also based in Minnetonka, now is working on high-heat-resistant grades of amorphous PLA that could be used in cups for hot drinks and yogurt, Owen said. The new grades should be ready for customer testing by midyear.
Yogurt cups made from PLA have degraded fully in controlled composts in only 47 days, Owen said.
To date, the venture most frequently has used corn to make PLA. Owen said the corn is the type that would be used to make products such as the high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten soda pop, and is not food-grade corn.
``Only a small percentage of corn is actually consumed by humans,'' Owen said. ``Corn is a surplus crop; there's always some left over.''
In the longer-term, however, Cargill Dow said it would like to move away from using any potential food source as a feedstock. One possibility is using plant-based cellulosics. Cargill Dow is working with Eastman Chemical Co., BASF Corp. and other organic material makers on that option.
Moving away from corn also would be more efficient and produce higher value, partly by eliminating stalk waste, Owen said.
Designs are under way for a second plant, but the company has not announced its location. Efficiency improvements have allowed Cargill Dow to reduce the price of PLA to $1.25 per pound.
To date no commercial applications are complete in America, although several are under way in Europe and Asia. North American commercialization could be near, however, thanks to the Federal Trade Commission's recognition of PLA as a generic material for fibers. Cargill Dow spokesman Michael O'Brien said the FTC move puts PLA on the same level as cotton, wool, silk, nylon and polyester.
O'Brien said FTC had not recognized a new fiber material since at least the 1950s.
``A lot of processors are looking for a natural that can perform like a synthetic,'' he said. ``That way they can market their products as all-natural.''