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Modifier improves the heat tolerance of bioplastic

By Gerald Parkinson |

Plastic derived from corn, used mostly for bottles and cups, costs about 20% more than petroleum-based plastics, but has two desirable qualities: it comes from a renewable resource and is biodegradable. However, the use of the plastic — polylactic acid (PLA) — is restricted because PLA has a heat-deflection temperature of only about 60–70°C, well below the 100°C filling temperature required for many food products. An additive, or modifier, that promises to resolve that problem is being developed at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Western Regional Research Center (Albany, Calif.; www.ars.usda.gov) in collaboration with Lapol, LLC (Santa Barbara, Calif.; lapol.net). In laboratory tests the modifier has already pushed the deflection temperature above 100°C, says researcher Allison Flynn, a Lapol chemist. Lapol, a startup company, specializes in additives for plastics and has already developed a plasticizer that makes PLA more flexible. USDA chemist William Orts explains that PLA is made by using bacteria to ferment corn sugar to lactic acid. The acid is dehydrated to lactide, which is polymerized to obtain beads of PLA. The modifier is blended with the PLA to make it more heat-tolerant. Flynn…
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