July 10, 2015 | By Simon

One only has to walk down the street of any urban metropolitan area to be reminded of one of the most pressing issues of our time: plastic pollution.  Of course, the problem isn’t just reserved for cities; nearly anywhere where humans exist there is some form of plastic pollution - whether it’s in the form of discarded soda lids, plastic bags or the ever-increasing e-waste from electronics products.

Thankfully, despite the growing rate of pollution, many developments have also been made towards converting existing plastics over to ‘greener’ plastics through both changing existing processes as well as changing the entire material makeup of the plastic itself.  

Among other bioplastic materials that has been becoming more common over the years includes polylactic acid (PLA), however the cost of producing the material is significantly more than the cost of producing traditional petroleum-based plastics so it is yet to be considered a full alternative.  Thanks to recent developments from researchers at the KU Leuven Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis however, it may now be possible to produce bioplastics at the same cost or less than it has been to produce traditionally-manufactured plastics up until now.     

Known by many in the additive manufacturing industry as one of the few plastics that is suitable for 3D printing, PLA has been one of the most common forms of filament types for the commonly-used fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers along with ABS.

Historically, the production process for PLA has been expensive due to the amount of steps it takes to process the material.

“First, lactic acid is fed into a reactor and converted into a type of pre-plastic under high temperature and in a vacuum”, explains professor Bert Sels from the Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis, who recently published his team’s findings in Science.

“This is an expensive process. The pre-plastic – a low-quality plastic – is then broken down into  building blocks for PLA. In other words, you are first producing an inferior plastic before you end up with a high-quality plastic. And even though PLA is considered a green plastic, the various intermediary steps in the production process still require metals and produce waste.”

In an effort to help reduce the costs of manufacturing PLA, Sels and his research team developed a new technique that they think just might be able to be used at a production scale for large industrial manufacturers.

According to postdoctoral researcher Michiel Dusselier, the process involves the application of “a petrochemical concept to biomass”.   

“We speed up and guide the chemical process in the reactor with a zeolite as a catalyst,” explains Dusselier.  

“Zeolites are porous minerals. By selecting a specific type on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores. Our new method has several advantages compared to the traditional technique: we produce more PLA with less waste and without using metals. In addition, the production process is cheaper, because we can skip a step”.

Thanks to the recent sale of their patent to a chemical company, Professor Sels believes that the technology will be implemented at a production scale sooner rather.

“The KU Leuven patent on our discovery was recently sold to a chemical company that intends to apply the production process on an industrial scale,” he adds.  

“Of course, PLA will never fully replace petroleum-based plastics. For one thing, some objects, such as toilet drain pipes, are not meant to be biodegradable. And it is not our intention to promote disposable plastic. But products made of PLA can now become cheaper and greener. Our method is a great example of how the chemical industry and biotechnology can join forces”.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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