6 November 2017

Natureworks Case Study

Over the past decade, NatureWorks has been in a growth mode - always involved in advanced research on the production of PLA from residues or second generation feedstocks

NatureWorks LLC is a private company, jointly owned by Cargill, a privately-held agricultural products corporation and PTT Global Chemical. It is the world’s largest producer of plastic resin derived from plant material rather than petroleum.

Background

NatureWorks LLC is a private company, jointly owned by Cargill, a privately-held agricultural products corporation and PTT Global Chemical, Thailand’s largest chemical producer. It is the world’s largest producer of plastic resin derived from plant material rather than petroleum. The main production facility, located in the Cargill Biorefinery Campus in Blair, Nebraska, has a nameplate capacity of 140 Million tonnes of plastic resin per year and until recently accounted for the majority of the world’s total production of bioplastic.

Early history and Joint Venture

The genesis of NatureWorks was in 1988 when Cargill made a commitment to develop new product lines based on plant starches manufactured by the company. Between 1988 and 1994, Cargill invested in significant research that resulted in multiple advances in converting plant sugar via fermentation into lactic acid and producing polylactide polymers (PLA) based on those lactides that had commercially viable properties. In 1994, Cargill built a small-scale pilot manufacturing plant in Savage, Minnesota to test its production concepts and to begin developing a market for its new PLA product. Cargill soon realized that it needed a partner with more experience, standing, and manufacturing experience in the plastics industry. Thus, Cargill-Dow, LLC was founded in 1997 as a 50/50 joint venture with the Dow Chemical Company to commercialize the PLA polymer. Operating under the trade name “NatureWorks”, Cargill-Dow built a commercial production facility in Blair, Nebraska in 2001. In 2005 Cargill bought out Dow’s share of the company and renamed the company “NatureWorks” and it’s PLA brand “Ingeo”.

Market growth

Over the past decade, NatureWorks has been in a growth mode. Sales have increased annually by 25-30 percent in the last three years. A plant expansion in 2009 doubled production capability to its current 140,000 tonnes per year. While Ingeo often competes in a commodity plastic resin market, its environmental credentials are a major part of the product’s brand. NatureWorks positions Ingeo as “offering the performance of conventional plastics and fibers with a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and lower non-renewable energy requirements.” NatureWorks also emphasizes that Ingeo has more “end-of-life options” than other plastics. Ingeo can be composted, recycled or incinerated. Ingeo products can be converted back into lactic acid, for use as an industrial feedstock including the production of more Ingeo.

Supply Chain Decisions

The Natureworks, Blair facility is strategically located in Nebraska, the third largest corn producing state in the country and the neighbouring state of Iowa, across the Missouri River from Blair, is the nation’s largest grower of corn. The Biorefinery Campus sources 60 percent of its corn from five counties in Nebraska and Iowa, roughly a 25 mile radius. The remaining 40 percent of corn supply is grown within a 60 mile radius of the Campus. Cargill buys corn directly from farmers and receives corn 365 days per year. Natureworks are also involved in advanced research on the production of PLA from residues or second generation feedstocks, to ensure that the company has an economic and environmentally sustainably future.

New Markets

In October 2011, PTT Chemical Public Company Limited (PTT Chemical), the largest chemical producer in Thailand, announced that it was making a $150 million equity investment in NatureWorks. NatureWorks and PTT Global Chemical are building a second Ingeo production facility in Thailand. The Thailand plant will utilize cheap and locally abundant sugarcane or cassava root rather than corn as its source of plant sugars. This facility in Thailand shortens supply chains for its growing Asian markets and gives the company more credibility in the marketplace. NatureWorks indicates that some large customers have expressed concern over Ingeo because they did not want to be dependent on a single source of supply (the one plant in Blair).

Planning for the future

To further expand the market reach and applications for Ingeo PLA, Natureworks signed a joint venture in 2012 with biosuccinic acid developer BioAmber to commercialize a new family of biobased compounded polymer resin grades.

In 2017 NatureWorks signed a contract to license Plaxica’s Optipure® chemical processing technology for the production of D-lactic acid, providing NatureWorks with a low-cost route to produce D-lactic acid, a building block for a further range of performance Ingeo™ PLA grades. This investment is part of NatureWorks’ long term strategy for leading the market with cost effective, functional biopolymers.

Source: Agriforvalor, 2017-10-26.

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