ABB to Automate Bioplastics Plant to Help Meet the Growing Global Demand for Sustainable Materials

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March 17, 2022

ABB has been awarded a major contract by NatureWorks, the world’s leading manufacturer of polylactic acid (PLA), a low-carbon bioplastic made from renewable agricultural resources, to automate their new, greenfield plant in Thailand, converting sugar cane to the polylactic acid (PLA) biopolymer, Ingeo™.

Highlights Include:

  • •ABB technology to automate NatureWorks’ new bioplastics plant in Thailand helping to meet the increasing global market demand for sustainable materials
  •  •The new site is set to produce 75,000 tons of Ingeo™ PLA biopolymer per year – integrated process from fermentation to polymerization enhances supply chain reliability
  •  •ABB technology will help improve energy and production efficiency of bioplastic manufacturing, expected to grow over 260 percent by 2026

The new plant in Thailand, will ferment and distill plant-based sugars – in a process similar to making beer or wine – converting the sugars first to lactic acid, then lactide and then polymerize them into Ingeo. In the new site, these three separate production processes will be fully integrated, resulting in significant improvements in energy and production efficiency. In addition, the integration of the fermentation phase will secure the supply of lactic acid. The Thailand facility will use sugarcane as feedstock and is set to produce 75,000 tons of sustainable plastic per year when fully operational. The anticipated projected startup for this greenfield facility is in the second half of 2024.

ABB’s scope of work is a two-part order including a FEED (front end engineering design) study followed by detailed automation project execution, with ABB acting as the Main Automation Contractor. ABB will deliver the hardware, software, control room design solutions, engineering, and site support to fully develop NatureWorks’ greenfield system. ABB’s market leading distributed control system Ability™ System 800xA will maximize plant efficiency and reliability through automation. Leveraging this technology, ABB will integrate inputs from all key systems into one single user-friendly overview. As a result, operators will be able to utilize data insights from all areas of the plant, delivered in real time, to drive efficiency, reduce risk and ensure production optimization. 

The project will apply State Based Controls (SBC), enabling operators to take fewer interactions to start up a unit and reduce risk by having access to the right information at the right time. In addition, ABB’s automated engineering batch application tool will be implemented for this project.

“ABB’s global presence, especially in the US and Thailand, combined with their deep expertise in the chemical industry, leading automation solutions, and design optimization approach, makes them the obvious choice for a partner to help achieve meaningful progress in our new plant,” said Steven Bray, Vice President of Operations and Project Program Manager at NatureWorks. “We also share a joint vision when it comes to resource efficiency, circular economy and sustainability.”

Part of NatureWorks’ global expansion plan, the plant will help meet the growing global demand for sustainable materials. Bioplastics today represent less than 1 percent of all plastic produced globally but production is expected to grow over 260 percent between 2020 and 20261.

Ingeo, an innovative material with unique properties that all begin with greenhouse gases, is an eco-friendly, biobased material used in a wide-range of plastic and fiber products from compostable food packaging – coffee capsules, tea bags, food containers – to 3D printing filament, diapers, and even refrigerator liners. Compared to traditional fossil-based polymers, manufacturing Ingeo produces approximately 80 percent less greenhouse gases and uses 52 percent less non-renewable energy.

“We are proud to support NatureWorks in addressing the increasing demand for sustainable high-performance materials and helping maximize both energy and production efficiency in the new facility,” said Brandon Spencer, President, ABB Energy Industries. “Our project with NatureWorks is perfectly aligned with our 2030 Sustainability Strategy and driving more sustainable use of our planet’s resources through innovative solutions that help reshape industries and enable a low-carbon society.”

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