Natural selection

Art August 01, 2013 00:00


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Thai researchers aim to make the kingdom a regional leader in the plant-based polymer polylactic acid resin

THOUSANDS OF TONNES of natural fibres are harvested every year from animals and plants for use in rope, twines and fabrics. Yet over the past few decades, much of that harvest has gone to waste, replaced by more modern and industrial synthetics such as nylon, polyester and acrylics.

Today, with ever-increasing pressure to protect the environment and respond to the very real issues of climate change, the trend is once again reversing and renewable and compostable materials are coming back into vogue.

While the plastics business may wish otherwise, materials made from plants rather than petroleum are infinitely better for the planet and the young and flourishing bio-business is successfully penetrating a variety of markets including the fashion industry.

Leading that effort in the Kingdom is the Thailand Textile Institute, which recently announced it was working with the National Innovation Agency (NIA) to develop polylactic acid (PLA) resin and fibre suitable for use in the textile industry.

The aim, says Charnchai Sirikasemlert, director of the institute’s technological support division, is to develop products made of PLA fibres to replace those made of polyester, such as in the sportswear sector, which require a special ventilating quality.

“PLA development is new to our textile industry,” he says. “We have seen PLA in other types of products such as rigid packaging, non-wovens and disposable product like diapers. We are working on a project called Texio and we hope that by 2015, we will have developed a new material that successfully blends PLA with silk, cotton or wool, making it suitable for use in the textile industry. We intend to promote our green textile under the brand ‘PLA Thailand’.”

Dr Wantanee Chongkham, director of NIA, adds that Thailand is at an advantage in developing this ecofriendly fabric as the country has an abundance of tapioca roots, corn and sugarcane, all key materials in the production of PLA resin and fibre

“PLA is a biopolymer derived from renewable resources,” she explains. “Switching from the use of polyester and polymer to this green alternative will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decrease the use of petrochemicals. It’s biodegrable when composted too. And its base materials will make corn and sugarcane value added crops, which generates greater income for our farmers.

“PLA is the new material of the future. Our Bt1.8 billion budget for the seven-year project that runs through 2015 is aimed at helping us not just to develop PLA but to become the bioplastics hub of the region. More than 130 projects are currently underway.”

For now there’s just one manufacturer of this biopolymer, NatureWorks LLC in the US, under the trade name Ingeo. The company is jointly owned by Cargill and Thailand’s PTTGC Plc. Technological engineering and know how can thus be brought to Thailand to help the country produce biopolymers and intermediates and ensure PLA if competitive, both in price and performance terms with traditional plastics.

NatureWorks can at present produce only 150,000 tonnes of Ingeo at its plant in Blair, Nebraska, and the engineering work is now underway for a second plant in Southeast Asia.

PTTGC’s Kittipong Limsuwanlert says the production of PLA resin used at the commercial scale has now been in place for more than 10 years and has played an important role in the green market. However, in comparison to conventional plastic, its market position is a mere 0.1 per cent.

“Extensive research on PLA is required in Thailand but there’s no doubting that the demand for bioplastic components is growing. NatureWorks LLC has already set up a regional office in Thailand, called Nature Works Asia Pacific and this will be responsible for pre-

 marketing. At the end of this year, we expect to invest more in production by using sugarcane and tapioca roots. Thailand should be producing PLA resin in two years and the potential is enormous. For example, Coca-Cola recently stated that its entire bottle range will be bioplastic-based in five years,” says Kittipong.

Pichai Uttamapinant, managing director of United Textile Mill, adds that the introduction by Japan of a newer and thinner polyester some 25 years ago led to great expansion in textile industry. “Nowadays Thailand’s textile industry uses 500 million tonnes of cotton and some 100 million tonnes of polyester cotton so obviously the quantities of PLA are very small in comparison and the cost is high. However, we all recognise that it is the material of the future and if we are able to produce it from corn and tapioca, it will be very competitive,” he says.

Apart from environmental benefits and its low carbon footprint, PLA attributes in non-wovens and fibres show outstanding moisture management properties and outperform polyester fabrics in breathability, comfort and low odour retention.

Wantanee, however, inserts a note of caution, pointing out that PLA fibre is less tolerant to heat than polyester, which could have an effect on the production of textiles.

“We need to improve qualities of PLA fibre for creating fabric that tolerates heat from 160 degrees Celsius to 230 degrees,” she says. “But the results of all our studies will benefit the demand of textile industry in the future.”

“With the younger generation more aware of ecological issues, the green market is flourishing even in the fashion industry. The development of PLA fibre in Thailand can be a middle to long term plan but it will definitely come. The industry must start now,” Charnchai concludes.