Industry Market Trends

Bioplastics Can Find Diverse Applications in the World of Intermediates

Jan 07, 2013

Credit: fishhawk, CC BY 2.0

Intermediates are materials, supplies or components that are supplied by one entity as an input to another entity's manufacturing process. It's a diverse and diffuse market that can include basic commodities like chemicals, resins, films, sheets or other kinds of relatively undifferentiated processed materials -- or it can include more refined and differentiated components such as plastic parts.

The concept of intermediates is not limited to the field of plastics; it can encompass materials such as lumber, metals, leather, paper, textiles, paints, dyes, fertilizers or even energy products such as petroleum, gas or electricity. An intermediate component can be complex in itself and can incorporate many parts and many different materials. For example, a car seat is a fairly complex assembly made up of a frame, foam padding, upholstery material, parts for controlling seat position and possibly even a heating element and electronic controls. The seat is made up of a number of intermediate components, but in reality the seat itself can be seen as an intermediate component that will eventually make up part of an automobile.

As you can see, this is a complex and diverse field. Various bioplastics could readily find markets in intermediates, according to a Lux Research Inc. in its report. Plastic intermediate components are used in such diverse markets as "electronics, building materials, automotive, aerospace and consumer goods," the report mentions. Such parts and materials might be made out of "composites, engineering grade plastics ranging from ABS to PEEK, and involve using solvents to clean and prep."

Some of the kinds of products I'm discussing here I've addressed in previous articles, such as my pieces on biomaterials in the automotive and packaging industries. However, looking at bioplastics through the overlay of intermediates reveals a broader kind of addressable market for makers of bioplastics.

In its June 2012 market study Global Plastic Product and Packaging Manufacturing, market research firm IBISWorld estimates the market for plastic products in 2012 at $779.8 billion. The firm projects an annual growth rate of 3.8 percent for the next five years, reaching $941.4 billion in 2017.

Bioplastics laboratory. Courtesy of Novamont.

IBISWorld says plastics used in furniture, construction, transportation and electrical make up the largest segment in plastic products, at 41.2 percent of total revenue. Plastic pipes, plates, shapes, sheets and bags make up the second largest segment, at 32.5 percent. Containers and packaging come in at 14 percent, and various foams at something under 12 percent. From the character of these segments, it's easy to see that intermediates are an important part of the picture. Plastic materials and components often make up part of a larger assembly or constitute a commodity to be cut, shaped, or molded into parts.

As discussed in previous articles, bio-based materials offer environmental benefits in that they reduce lifetime emissions of toxic materials and greenhouse gases (GHGs). Procuring plastic resins from plant-based sources also provides manufacturers an alternative to plastics from conventional petroleum resins, which are subject to problems in pricing and supply. Some bioplastics are even biodegradable or compostable, if they can be separated properly from the general waste stream.

Bio-Materials for Intermediate Components

Many of the applications in this broad category of intermediate materials and components are referred to as "engineered," "specialty grade," or "high performance" plastics and must meet stringent performance characteristics in such areas as rigidity and tensile strength. To be adopted for manufacture of such parts and components, bioplastics need to be conducive to intensive processes such as injection molding and extrusion.

ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is an important plastic suitable for extrusion and injection molding. Its high strength and durability make it a useful plastic for manufacturing of many kinds of plastic parts where consistent performance is crucial. Butanediol (BDO) is an important input for the production of ABS and thus has become a target for makers of bioplastics.

Plant-based materials are making their way into such high-performance applications as automobile tires. Courtesy of Novamont.

Green chemistry firm Genomatica develops fermentation-based manufacturing processes for producing intermediate and basic chemicals from renewable feedstocks. Its first production objective is to manufacture a sugar-based BDO, with butadiene as its second target chemical.

In February 2012, Genomatica signed a deal with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation to jointly produce BDO at commercial scale in Asia. Mitsubishi already manufactures petroleum-based BDO as a raw material for plastics production.

Then in July 2012, Genomatica entered into a three-way agreement with Versalis, a manufacturer of elastomers, and with biorefinery specialist Novamont, to enable production of butadiene from renewable feedstocks. Genomatica calls butadiene "one of the seven basic chemicals at the core of the chemical industry" and says the material is used in such diverse applications as "rubber for tires, electrical appliances, footwear, plastics, asphalt modifiers, additives for lubricating oil, pipes, building components and latex."

The announcement of Genomatica's deal with Versalis and Novamont points to issues of supply as a key driver behind the move into plant-based feedstocks:

Butadiene is a key intermediate for Versalis' elastomers business. The raw material required to produce it, extracted from C4s (a mixture of molecules containing four carbon atoms) and produced by cracking plants, is increasingly subject to availability problems.

Decreasing supplies and a lack of dedicated butadiene production facilities have resulted in significant long-term pressure on the price and volatility of the chemical, which in turn increases the price of butadiene-based products, including tires.

Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) are both rugged, versatile plastics used in a variety of applications, such as plastic parts, packaging, bottles, fabrics, composites, containers and housings. Bioplastics companies are working on plant-based versions of these plastics.

Biobent Polymers, a subsidiary of Marysville, Ohio-based Univenture, has developed soybean-based replacements for PP and PE containing between 10 percent and 40 percent bio-based material. The company refers to Biobent PP and Biobent PE as "the first bioplastic without compromises." The company says the use of soybean feedstock means its bio-composite resins are price-competitive with petroleum-based plastics.

Biorefinery. Courtesy of Novamont.

Some technologies employ plant-based materials to reinforce PP and PE to attain strength and rigidity while increasing the renewable content. This is the strategy of Toronto-based GreenCore Composites, which produces a family of NCell natural-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics for injection molding and extrusion. GreenCore's biocomposites combine polymers with wood or agricultural fibers such as hemp, flax, wheat or kenaf. The company believes that its NCell technology is "an ideal replacement for automotive glass-reinforced or mineral filled polypropylene compounds, especially those used in interiors and under-the-hood applications."

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Solegear Bioplastics Inc. produces a line of Polysole Bioplastics suitable for injection molding and high performance applications. Polysole plastics are made from plant-based polylactic acid (PLA) with proprietary natural additives. Besides being sourced from renewable materials and thus carrying a low carbon footprint, Polysole is biodegradable.

The intermediates category tends to impose more stringent performance requirements on its materials. But it offers a promising market for bioplastics manufacturers, if they can develop engineered materials that offer the environmental benefits of plant-based substitutes along with competitive pricing and comparable performance characteristics.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the fifth in a series on how bioplastics are being used throughout the manufacturing industry. You can read the rest of the series here: