Bio–Polymer NatureWorks Expands Bio–Polymer Production with Process Equipment from Sulzer

Editor: Dominik Stephan

NatureWork overhauls its bio–polymers prododuction: New production technology will increase capacity at the NatureWorks' Blair, Nebraska, facility to 150,000 metric tonnes per annum, making new performance grades available in the second quarter 2013.

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Sulzer proprietary equipment for lactide purification.
Sulzer proprietary equipment for lactide purification.
(Picture: Sulzer)

Minnetonka, Minneapolis/USA and, Winterthur/Switzerland – NatureWorks and Sulzer's division Sulzer Chemtech announced today that Sulzer has shipped proprietary production equipment to NatureWorks’ Blair, Nebraska, facility that will enable NatureWorks to increase the production of Ingeo biopolymer and produce new, high-performance resins and lactides.

Nameplate Ingeo production capacity at Blair will rise from 140,000 to 150,000 metric tonnes per annum. Commissioning of the installed new equipment is expected in the first quarter of 2013 with capacity increases and new products becoming available in the second quarter.

Results of More than A Year of Cooperation

NatureWorks and Sulzer have been working on this capital improvement project for more than a year: Each company has contributed to the project, with NatureWorks bringing its operational experience and intellectual property in lactides processing, and Sulzer bringing its proprietary equipment and engineering design expertise in this field.

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Combing Proprietary Technologies for Biopolymer Project

NatureWorks owns patents to the new process, to which Sulzer has exclusive sublicensing rights worldwide. “NatureWorks has an extensive patent portfolio that includes intellectual property around lactides, polymer, and product applications” explained Bill Suehr, NatureWorks' chief operating officer. “This project has been a natural marriage of each company’s assets, focused on a subset of NatureWorks' patented process technology to bring both new capacity and new products to the market”.

“Sulzer has a wide range of innovative technologies applicable for lactide purification. In support of NatureWorks' team, we optimized one of these technologies with the goal to expand the Ingeo product portfolio. In this process, additional work was done in our test center with two primary benefits in focus – increased capacity and product extension,” Peter Moritz, head of Sulzer Process Technology, said. “The project development, including the design and delivery of our proprietary equipment, provided an exciting professional and technical opportunity for us to show our capabilities for this type of application.”

New Bio–Based Polymer Grades

With the new technology, NatureWorks will be introducing new high-performance Ingeo resin grades in the injection molding and fibers arenas. New injection molding grades Ingeo 3100HP and 3260HP are designed to be used in medium and high flow nucleated formulations to provide an excellent balance of mechanical and thermal properties while delivering up to 75 percent cycle time savings over formulations based on current Ingeo grades. Heat distortion temperatures (@ 66 psig) are expected to be 15°C higher than what is achievable today.

Improved Properties for New Bio–Polymer Fibers

Fibers and nonwoven products made from the new Ingeo grades 6260D and 6100D will have reduced shrinkage and better dimensional stability. These improved features are expected to enable Ingeo use across a broader range of fiber and nonwoven applications and provide larger processing windows in fiber spinning and downstream conversion processes. NatureWorks also will assess new market and application opportunities for the technology in other processes, including thermoforming, film extrusion, blow molding, and profile extrusion.

New Lactide – A World Novelty

NatureWorks will be the world’s first and only company to offer commercial quantities of a high-purity, polymer-grade lactide rich in the stereoisomer meso-lactide. Identified as Ingeo M700 lactide, this unique new commercial material will be used as an intermediate for copolymers, amorphous resins, grafted substrates, resin additives/modifiers, adhesives, coatings, elastomers, surfactants, thermosets, and solvents.

Several producers have addressed the functionality requested by the market with what are described chemically as racemic lactides. “Compared to these, the high-purity Ingeo M700 will be easier to process and an overall cost effective alternative to racemic, L-, and D-lactides in a host of industrial applications,” said Dr. Manuel Natal, global segment leader for lactide derivatives at NatureWorks.

Samples Tested With Target Group of Early Adopters

While the new equipment was being manufactured, Sulzer supported NatureWorks to supply a targeted group of early adopters with demonstration samples of these new resin grades and lactides to enable early-stage feasibility work. Once the new equipment is commissioned in the first quarter of 2013, NatureWorks will expand the availability of these developmental samples to include a broader group of potential users.

Ingeo – Making Polymers from Corn

Ingeo is a USDA BioPreferred biopolymer that is made from renewable plant material, not oil. Its environmental footprint in terms of greenhouse gas emission and energy consumption is smaller than all commonly applied petrochemical-based plastics. Over the past several years, NatureWorks has made significant investments in initiatives that address and certify Ingeo’s sustainability from an agricultural perspective through end-of-life scenarios.

Products made from Ingeo span multiple industries and categories, including packaging, electronics, clothing, house wares, health and personal care, semi-durable products, and the foodservice industry. View this special edition Ingeo LookBook for a sampling of the latest Ingeo innovations.

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