Dow Chemical Company aims to make biomass a larger part of its raw material mix with plans for the world's biggest bioplastic production facility.
Building off of current operations in Brazil, Dow will operate the plant as a joint venture with Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co. to make plastic from sugarcane.
The venture will initially produce ethanol from sugarcane -- Brazil is the second biggest ethanol producer in the world -- and after the completion of additional facilities, use that to make biopolymers. Production will focus on polyethylene, the most commonly-used plastic, targeted for use in high-performance flexible packaging and medical equipment.
"The flexible packaging market is currently booming, not only in Brazil but throughout Latin America," said Gina Gibbs Foster, associate communications director at Dow. "At the same time, consumers are increasingly turning to sustainable solutions. For these reasons, we are certain that there is ample market demand and growth potential for biopolymers, particularly within the high-performance flexible packaging, hygiene and medical markets."
Sugarcane is one of many biomass feedstocks companies are exploring as they turn to non-petroleum resources. Heinz and Odwalla are both using the Coca-Cola Company's sugarcane-based plastic technology for bottles, and Procter & Gamble has tested sugarcane packaging for shampoo and makeup.
Although Dow expects its final bioplastic products to be competitive price-wise with oil-based plastics, MIT's Technology Review reports, the company "hopes to charge more for the product because of the significant demand for low-carbon, sustainable materials."
Keeping Dow's costs down are the Brazilian government's support for ethanol production and the fact that Dow is handling all stages of the operation, from sugarcane growing to plastic production.
Construction of a new plant for producing ethanol is expected to begin later this quarter, followed by the completion of plans for facilities for converting the ethanol to plastic.
As part of the venture, Mitsui will become a 50 percent equity interest partner in Dow's sugarcane growing operation in Santa Vitória, Minas Gerais, in southeast Brazil.
Dow had set previous plans to create a bioplastic-producing joint veture in 2007, but one of the partners was taken over by a company that didn't want to take part in the project.
Sugarcane image CC-licensed by raichovak/Flickr