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Production of Polylactic Acid

By Chemical Engineering |

Polylactic acid (PLA) is the biodegradable polymer of lactic acid, which is produced via fermentation processes. For the last five decades, PLA has been mainly used in biomedical applications. The development of economical production routes and a rising environmental awareness by the general public have pushed PLA uses to new markets, including consumer goods and packaging applications. High-molecular-weight PLA can be produced through two main routes: an indirect route via a lactide intermediate, and a direct polymerization by polycondensation. The indirect route is the most common in industry, and is employed by two of the major PLA producers: NatureWorks LLC (Minnetonka, Minn.; www.natureworksllc.com) and Corbion-Purac (Amsterdam, the Netherlands; www.corbion.com). In the indirect process, lactic acid is first oligomerized and depolymerized to produce lactide, a cyclic dimer of lactic acid. Then, through a ring-opening polymerization, lactide is converted to polylactic acid. PLA production process Figure 1 depicts a process for PLA production via a ring-opening polymerization process similar to that developed by NatureWorks. This process can be divided into two main areas: oligomerization and lactide formation; and lactide polymerization.…
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