16 Mai 2006

Thailand’s new wave industries: Crops become shopping bags

With the aim to successfully establish a bio-based plastics industry, the government, through the Science and Technology Ministry, will invest Bt 1 billion to turn this vision into reality by 2009.

The plan not only encourages local manufacturers to produce biodegradable plastic products, but also simultaneously creates a new market with the help of research and development. This industry will produce bio-plastic resins using local plants like cassava root as raw material. It includes a plan to set up pilot plants to produce resins for export as well as the local industry.

Headed by the National Innovation Agency (NIA), the development of a biodegradable plastics industry will concentrate on two major bio-plastic technologies – PLA (polylactic acid) and PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates).

While polylactic acid is a plastic material produced from sugar fermentation to produce lactic acid for subsequent polymerisation to PLA, PHAs are a class of polymers that are fully biodegradable.

PLA involves the use of micro-organisms to change the structure of dextrose, while PHAs come from bacteria or micro-organisms that produce polymer from the raw materials they are fed. PHAs are naturally produced in numerous types of bacteria and have been amplified through bacterial fermentation.

Atthawit Techawiboonwong, project manager at NIA, said that plastic produced from PLA was transparent and could not withstand temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius, so it would be suitable for use as shopping bags or food packaging. Since PHAs are stronger, they could be used as parts for the automotive industry.

While PLA is set to replace the use of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a thermo plastic resin of the polyester family, the development of PHA will defer the use of polyethylene or a common plastic polymer and polypropylene that is a plastic polymer. The latter has quite a big market according to NIA’s study, which found about 1.6 million tonnes of polyethylene and polypropylene used locally a year.

NIA will collaborate with a number of related government bodies, as well as private and academic sectors, to begin groundwork for the new industry.

Atthawit said that before becoming fully involved in developing and producing bio-plastic resin, it is essential to create a new market to spur the use of biodegradable plastic.

NIA has been in discussions with agencies to develop pilot projects using the new plastic. It is expected that the plan will allocate a budget of Bt50 million for this.

As part of the plan to develop the local market, a Thai consortium of plastics firms is doing research and development on manufacturing biodegradable plastic using PLA from domestically produced cassava-based plastic resins instead of imported corn-based resins.

Five plastics-makers forming the consortium joined in the development. At this stage, each company will conduct research and development to create its own formula for developing bio-plastic compounds using imported bio-plastic resins. The goal is to have a new compound that can produce better-quality bio-plastic at a lower cost.

Research and development will start selecting the type as well as breed of local plants, harvesting area and also cultivation technology.

Atthawit said that Suranaree University of Technology and Chulalongkorn University’s Petroleum and Petrochemical College would play a major role in research and development. Suranaree will work to find the best micro-organisms necessary for the fermentation process to turn material into lactic acid. The Petroleum and Petrochemical College will continue the process by polymerising the acid into polylactic acid.

It is expected that research and development will take about five years to complete and will need an investment of about Bt500 million.

Once the development is complete, pilot plants would be set up potentially in 2009 to produce PLA and PHA before starting production at a commercial level.

NIA believes that it will require very high investments for this industry so a joint venture between public and private sectors, comprising both local and international players, is needed to start the business.

Potentially, biodegradable plastic produced in the initial phase will be quite expensive but it is believed that costs will drop once shipment volume rises.

Also, plans to market the material for a variety of applications will bring prices closer to those of petroleum-based plastics.

Source: The Nation May 15, 2006.

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