PTT Chemical invests in NatureWorks

By Erin Voegele | October 13, 2011

Bioplastics manufacturer NatureWorks LLC has announced that Thailand’s largest chemical producer, PTT Chemical Public Co. Ltd. is investing $150 million in NatureWorks. PTT Chemical’s investment in NatureWorks, which until now has been wholly owned by Cargill, is subject to regulatory approval. Once that approval is granted, PTT Chemical will hold a 50-percent equity share in NatureWorks.

PTT Chemical’s investment means that NatureWorks’ second manufacturing facility will be built in Thailand. According to Steve Davies, NatureWorks’ global director for marketing and public relations, the new facility is currently expected to be operational by late 2015. The company currently operates a 150,000-ton-per-year bioplastics manufacturing facility in Blair, Neb.

While the 2015 timeline may seem like a rather long development horizon to some, Davies stresses that the target is actually quite aggressive. One of the first steps in the proposed facility’s development will be to decide on the scope of the project. The Nebraska plant actually consists of two adjacent facilities; one that produces biobased lactic acid and a second that converts that biobased feedstock into NatureWorks’ Ingeo bioplastic. NatureWorks will need to determine if the company can purchase sufficient quantities of biobased lactic acid on the market, or if it will need to establish a lactic acid plant in addition to the Ingeo facility. According to Davies, if a lactic acid plant must be built, it will also need to be decided whether NatureWorks, Cargill or PTT Chemical would construct and operate the plant.

The Ingeo facility itself will be owned and operated by NatureWorks. Beyond defining the scope of the project, NatureWorks will also have to complete detailed engineering and design, procure equipment, and construct the plant and install manufacturing equipment. Davies also noted that regardless of whether a lactic acid plant is also constructed, the project will proceed on the same timeline.

The new facility is expected to produce approximately 150,000 tons of Ingeo bioplastic a year. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel here,” Davies said. “We’ve gotten great experience in the last nine years running our Blair manufacturing facility.”

In addition to enabling work on NatureWorks’ second production plant, Davies notes that there are more broad-based implications to PTT Chemical’s investment. “For us, it represents a move toward the mainstream,” he said, noting the fact that a large petrochemical producer investing in NatureWorks has really changed the dynamics of the industry. Rather than being positioned as competition to traditional plastics, the investment helps show that the two industries are beginning to merge, Davies said.

“This is a significant investment by a leading chemical company, which will allow NatureWorks to continue its aggressive growth while expanding its capacity to meet global demand for biobased products,” said Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of NatureWorks. “PTT Chemical’s investment demonstrates a significant milestone in moving Ingeo biobased plastics and fibers to the polymer mainstream.”