From carpets and cell phone cases to lipstick and wedding gowns, corn-based polyactic acid (PLA) is making its presence felt as a replace for petroleum-based synthetics.
PLA is a polymer that is being used for clothing fabrics, carpeting, furniture, plastic films and containers for food and other product packaging.
“So far, researchers haven’t found anything made from conventional plastics that can’t be made from PLA,” according to a report from the University of Nebraskas-Lincoln Industrial Agricultural Products Center.
But the biggest benefit from PLA and other corn-based materials is their value as building blocks for a variety of other products, says Richard Glass, vice-president of Research and Development for the National Corn Growers Association.
“NCGA is looking at programs to make chemicals from corn, such as: glycols, esters, amines, glycol ethers and epoxides,” Glass explained. “These are basic chemical building blocks. From those, industry can make solvents, resins and plasticizers that are the ingredients in finished products.”
The goal, Glass said, is “to have more than just one product coming out the door” of a biorefinery, and raise the value of corn. “This is an opportunity for growers to get more value for their crop and keep dollars in rural America.”
PLA, for example, is made by fermenting corn starch into lactic acid, which can then be made into a polymer. That polymer can be used to make products as durable as a plastic case or as soft as fabric. According to NatureWorks, LLC, operators of the world’s largest PLA plant, producing PLA uses 65 percent less energy and emits 68 percent less greenhouse gases than conventional plastics.
NCGA is also looking at similar programs to improve the quality of distillers dried grains and create co-products that are practical for use in many products beyond livestock feed.
Glass compares corn to crude oil. “Just as crude oil is used for many different things besides gasoline, we believe corn can be used for many different things beyond ethanol,” he said. “PLA is just the first of the breakthroughs we’re seeing in making corn a value-added crop.”