DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY (Nov. 12, 11:40 a.m. EST) — Materials makers saw only one shade in the multicolored logo of K 2007: green — as in biodegradable, bio-based, renewable or any other suitable buzzword for plastics derived from anything but oil.
At least a dozen companies launched new or improved bioplastics at the event, held Oct. 24-31 in Dusseldorf. The focus was a result of the global emphasis on conservation of natural resources that has sprung up in the wake of wider recognition of global warming.
“From a product perspective, depending on oil-based feedstocks is not sustainable,” said Nandan Rao, vice president of technology for DuPont Co.'s performance materials unit.
“There's been tremendous escalation of [oil] intermediate prices, and that can't always be passed down the value chain. That impacts material use and causes a decline in value. We really have to look at alternatives.”
Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont was active on the bioresin front at K, launching new grades of copolyester and nylon resins based on renewable resources. The company also confirmed that its plant in Loudon, Tenn., is running at its full capacity of 100 million pounds per year. That plant makes propanediol, the raw material for DuPont's Sorona bioresin.
Corn-sugar-based Sorona resins made in Loudon will be commercialized by the end of the year, officials said. The materials now can use corn stalks and leaves as feedstock instead of just the grain, Rao said.
A new grade of Hytrel RS elastomeric copolyester can be as much as 60 percent bio-based by weight and has potential in automotive air-bag door covers and similar products. A flexible nylon based on castor oil also is being developed for use in filaments for toothbrushes, paintbrushes and seating.
Further market acceptance could lead to an expansion in Loudonville two years from now, Rao said. Overall, DuPont will spend $8 billion by 2015 on a number of green projects, including biofuels.
“Consumers are more aware, and they're experiencing the impact of global warming,” Rao said. “Plastics consume a lot of energy, and that results in carbon dioxide emissions. People want the same type of products today, but without a detrimental effect to the planet.”
Clariant Masterbatches has taken a similar approach with a line of color and additive masterbatches designed for use with polylactic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoate and other bioresins. The firm, based in Muttenz, Switzerland, also has developed additives that are compatible with post-consumer polyethylene.
Elsewhere, Barcelona, Spain-based Merquinsa Mercados Químicos SL has thrown its hat into the bioresin ring with new grades of thermoplastic polyurethanes introduced at K 2007. The new products — Pearlthane Eco and Pearlbond Eco — can be made with a range of renewable resources, including castor oil and its derivatives, Merquinsa President Jose Luis Ayuso said at the show.
In Brazil, South American petrochemical giant Braskem SA confirmed its plans to open the world's first sugar-based polyethylene plant in 2009.
SÃ£o Paulo-based Braskem will open the 440 million-pound-capacity plant in Triunfo, Brazil, pending approval of Braskem's management board early next year, said Chief Executive Officer Jose Carlos Grubisch.
“This will be a very attractive product that has the major advantage of having the green label,” he said.
Sugar cane will be converted into ethanol and then into ethylene. Brazil, the world's largest sugar grower, already makes extensive use of ethanol as a fuel.
Grubisch added that Braskem's sugar-to-PE plan is three years ahead of a similar project announced in the region by Dow Chemical Co.
“Our advantage is that we have existing capacities in Brazil, so we can be on a very fast track,” he said. “We'll be the first to market because of our resource advantage.”
Paris-based materials maker Arkema SA debuted renewable grades of its Pebax-brand thermoplastic elastomer and Rilsan-brand nylon 6/11. Both materials are based on castor oil.
Arkema also has taken the somewhat unusual step of tailoring new additive grades for PLA applications, even though the additives aren't biodegradable. New-market development manager Stephane Girois said the additives — which the company claims improve impact performance, melt strength and heat resistance — still will allow customers to use a raw material, PLA, that's based on a renewable resource.
In a similar move, bioresins maker and compounder Cereplast Inc. earlier this year introduced starch-based resins intended for use with standard petroleum-based grades of PE and polypropylene. Officials with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Cereplast said the move was made to accelerate commercial acceptance of bioresins.
Other companies working the bioresins beat at the K 2007 show included:
c Novamont SpA of Novara, Italy, which is increasing annual capacity at its “biorefinery” in Terni, Italy, to more than 130 million pounds of biodegradable and compostable bioplastics. Novamont's Mater-Bi-brand bioresins recently were accepted for use in packaging from a pair of British food makers — Jordans Cereals of Bedfordshire and Village Bakery of Cumbria.
c Metabolix Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., which released results of an independent study that showed its Mirel-brand bioplastic reduces use of nonrenewable energy by more than 95 percent and provides a 200 percent reduction in greenhouse gases vs. production of conventional petroleum-based plastics. Metabolix also received a $2 million technology award from the Department of Commerce in September.
In some cases, both materials makers and their customers are walking a fine line in an attempt to secure the green label. The variety of bioresins now available might confuse potential customers, but DuPont's Rao said he does not think that is the case.
DuPont's Sorona resin “is good for durable goods, and PLA is good for disposable ones,” he said. “No one bioresin is designed for all end uses.
“We think in terms of whole life-cycle assessment. Any way you look at it, [bioresins] are good for the planet. What we're seeing in the market is evolution.”
Rao said he's confident the demand for bioresins will continue.
“In packaging, the push with big retailers like Wal-Mart and McDonald's is picking up steam, and bioleaders like Toyota have set goals. Automakers need to reduce emissions and improve the image of their brand, but it's not just about the cost of the raw material. It's about the impact of greenhouse gases and human activity.”