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Unique Fiber Breakthrough

Cargill/Dow joint venture unveils unique family of polymers derived entirely from annually renewable sources such as corn.

By Trudi Novina, New York Correspondent

C argill Dow Polymers LLC, a 50/50 joint venture between Cargill Inc. and the Dow Chemical Co., announced a breakthrough family of polymers derived entirely from annually renewable sources, such as corn.

Called Nature Works™ PLA, it is said to be the only competitive, natural-based resin to have the cost and performance necessary to compete with traditional fibers. The new resin is achieved by applying the Nature Works technology to the processing of natural plant sugars to create a proprietary polylactide polymer (PLA).

“Nature Works products are a natural fit for Dow’s existing polymer business,” said William S. Stavropoulos, president and CEO of Dow. “It offers the opportunity to truly develop sustainable products because we are using raw material that can be regenerated year after year. It is cost competitive and environmentally responsible.”

Innovation On A Roll

flowchart_940Nature Works PLA, a fiber-grade resin designed for extrusion into mechanically drawn staple fibers, continuous filaments and monofilaments, can be used in a wide range of fiber and nonwoven applications. These include apparel in both 100-percent and blended (wool, cotton, silk) fabrics, upholstery, drapery, carpet tiles, industrial and institutional fabrications, wipes, diapers, agricultural and geotextiles and outdoor furnishings.

According to the company, more than $300 million has been invested in the construction of a new world-class plant in Blair, Neb., to produce 140,000 metric tons (300 million pounds) of PLA resin, when it comes on stream in late 2001.

Current capacity at the company’s Minnesota plant is limited (8 million pounds), and is being used to develop new applications in cooperation with some of the world’s leading mills and fiber producers including Unifi, FIT (Fiber Innovation Technology) and Parkdale Mills. Cargill Dow Polymers is also working with downstream customers such as Interface Inc., The Woolmark Company, Burlington Mills, Unitika and Vanity Fair, as well as several other leading active sportswear and nonwoven companies.

The Japanese firm Kanebo, which has been working with PLA resin a little longer than most, presented fashions made with the new fibers at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Osaka, and Fila brand golf shirts are now being test marketed in Japan. (See “Quality Fabric of the Month,” ATI June 1999.

Applications And Advantages

According to Dr. James Lunt, director, product development for CDP, there is no sacrifice in performance or cost effectiveness with PLA polymers. In applications, PLA acts like a conventional plastic polymer and can be run on existing fiber spinning and downstream textile fabrication equipment.

Processing advantages include high extrusion/spin speeds, reduced processing temperatures and reduced energy consumption. PLA production uses 30- to 50-percent less fossil fuel than other polymers derived directly from hydrocarbons.

Lunt also noted that the new polymers provide the following desirable characteristics:

• superior melt processability;
• low moisture absorption & rapid wicking;
• exceptional UV and fade resistance;
• low flammability, smoke and heat generation;
• outstanding resilience and stain resistance;
• a range of melting points to facilitate controlled thermal bonding; and
• aesthetically, fabrics made from PLA fibers are distinctive for their superior silk- or cotton-like hand and touch, drape and comfort.

Andy Shafer, commercial director for CDP said: “New fibers and fabrics derived from Nature Works PLA can provide desired cost-performance differentiation in broad market applications while offering the advantage of natural-based feedstocks.”

John Wilson, vice president, marketing for FIT, cited the ecologically friendly aspects of PLA resin as well as its excellent processability yielding very uniform and predictable results.

Lee Gordon of Unifi is currently sampling two deniers aimed at the lingerie market.

“With the limited amount of PLA resin currently available, we felt that we would get more bang for the buck here, but will eventually target outerwear applications, especially men’s shirting,” Gordon said. He added that the PLA lingerie yarns were completely competitive with nylon tricot, traditionally used for intimate apparel.

purpleshirt_939Lunt noted that the ability to produce PLA resin with different crystalline structures and melting points during the fiberization process allows for easy production of a variety of bicomponent structures. He added that PLA is easily converted into sub-1.0 denier fibers, enhancing the functional and fashion attributes for the growing microfibers market.

While corn is considered the most efficient feedstock in the United States, alternative feedstocks such as sugar beets, rice or wheat may be used in other parts of the world. A second plant for the production of PLA resin will be built in Europe in about two years, Stoppert said, adding that thereafter, new plants will be brought on stream in various parts of the world every 18 to 24 months as the market demands.

Stoppert projected that CDP, a relatively small company now, would grow into a multi-billion dollar operation in the near future.

“Within three years we expect the Blair plant to ramp up and sell out quickly. Before the end of the decade, with several world scale plants operating around the globe, we anticipate producing a billion pounds of PLA resin, between the plastics and fiber businesses,” he said.


March 2000