NatureWorks uses a locally abundant and sustainably produced source of bio-based carbon to create the polylactic acid (PLA)-based biomaterial Ingeo. Made from annually renewable plant sugars, Ingeo has an average carbon footprint 80% smaller than petrochemical-based plastics and needs 52% less non-renewable energy to manufacture. Currently, Ingeo polylactic acid and lactide is made from fermented plant sugar molecules, but the company is also assessing direct greenhouse gas to lactic acid technology, which would bypass the need for agricultural crops altogether.
Biobased materials have unique performance properties in the nonwovens industry, as evidenced by a recent collaboration with the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC/USA. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, NatureWorks LLC, Plymouth, MN/USA, worked with the NWI and Aries to modify previously developed microfibrillation technology into a novel engineered fabric technology for face masks that delivers improvements in filtration and breathability. Because they are made with Ingeo PLA, the masks have a smaller carbon footprint than standard masks and are reusable for a week in addition to being the only masks listed by the CDC to meet Level 2 performance for barrier face coverings in both breathability and filtration.
This is one of many applications in the nonwoven industry that supports NatureWorks’ mission of creating more responsible high-performance materials for a more sustainable future. In absorbent hygiene products, the use of Ingeo nonwovens increased the bio-based content of a product while also contributing to a lower carbon footprint. However, new technology in Ingeo nonwovens combined with tailored topical treatments also has the ability to outperform polypropylene incumbents in fluid management, durability, and breathability for hygiene applications like diapers.
NatureWorks has also developed processes for chemical recycling, which for Ingeo PLA, involves collecting used PLA and breaking it down using hydrolosis into its building block, lactic acid, so it can be repolymerized into PLA and used in other applications. The process is low cost, low energy, requires little use of chemicals, and yields a recovery rate of up to 99% reusable material. This is currently being explored mostly for 3D printing applications but in the future, could expand to nonwovens applications.
The company has also partnered with third-party organization ISCC to obtain ISCC Plus certification for ensuring the social and environmental sustainability of the feedstocks used to manufacture Ingeo. Additionally, Ingeo biopolymer is certified as 100% bio-based according to the USDA BioPreferred program, ensuring that Ingeo biopolymer originates from renewable biogenic sources of carbon instead of oil.