Total S.A., one of the seven major global oil companies, is making a significant investment in the bioplastics industry through a joint venture with Corbion.
The companies are creating a 50/50 joint venture to produce and market polylactic (PLA) plastics. They are building a PLA polymerization plant with a capacity of 75,000 tons per year at Corbion’s site in Thailand that already has a lactide (PLA monomer) production unit that will become part of the joint venture. Corbion will supply the lactic acid to produce PLA and the lactide.
The new company will be based in the Netherlands and will launch operations in the 1st quarter of 2017, subject to regulatory approvals.
“I’m very pleased with this joint venture, which aims to become a major player in the growing bioplastics market. This investment is consistent with our One Total ambition of expanding in biofuels and bioplastics, in addition to our more traditional oil- and gas-based products,” said Bernard Pinatel, president of Total Refining & Chemicals. “Corbion’s unique position in the lactic acid and biopolymers value chain makes it a natural choice for Total. The joint venture will allow us to supply an innovative material that is 100 per cent renewable and biodegradable and that responds to sustainability concerns.”
Tjerk de Ruiter, CEO of Corbion, stated: “PLA is one of the first renewable, biodegradable polymers able to compete with existing polymers. The joint venture, which will combine Total’s technical and marketing knowledge and leading position in polymers with Corbion’s expertise in lactic acid and biopolymers, will enable us to supply innovative products and will accelerate market acceptance.”
It’s a big bet on a market that has been driven by NatureWorks, to date the sole producer of PLA. NatureWorks in the past has encouraged the addition of another producer to help develop the market and remove sole-sourcing concerns of many large buyers. PLA is mainly used for food packaging, disposable tableware and textiles, as well as in numerous other industries such as oil and gas, electronics, automotive and 3D printing.
Significant improvements have been made in the technical properties of PLA, a niche that the new JV hopes to exploit using Corbion’s proprietary lactide technology. Overall growth rates continue in the 10 to 15 per cent per year range, but there have been some hiccups. One was a noise issue when PLA was used for chips’ bags. Another came when Lego found the material lacked adequate creep resistance for use in in its ubiquitous bricks. Lego set up a research group to develop a bioplastic it could use as a complete replacement for ABS.
No name has been announced yet for the JV.