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Biotechnology

Japanese chemical makers bet on bioplastics

Mitsubishi Chemical produces its Durabio plastic at this facility in Kitakyushu.

TOKYO --  Mitsubishi Chemical and Dainichiseika Color & Chemicals Manufacturing are throwing their weight behind highly functional bioplastics in a bid to capture growing demand for the environmentally friendly material.

     Mitsubishi Chemical will manufacture more Durabio, a transparent plastic made from corn products. The plastic boasts elevated optical stability and scratch resistance. Because pigments can be added directly to the resin, the plastic can be used for smartphone screens and housing. The tinted plastic also can be made into car parts, negating the need for paint jobs.

     The Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings unit will quadruple production capacity to 20,000 tons by 2018 at a facility in the southern Japanese city of Kitakyushu. The company estimates it will spend 1 billion yen ($8.78 million) revamping equipment to meet the new production demands. Mitsubishi Chemical plans to put the plant into full production by 2020.

     The Japanese company will export car parts made from the plastic to Europe starting this year, and it also is mulling exports to the U.S.

     Dainichiseika will manufacture a flexible urethane plastic made mainly from sugar derived from inedible plants. The operation will begin as soon as fiscal 2016 at a Chiba Prefecture plant. The company says it discovered a way to make the plastic just as strong and easy to process as petroleum-derived equivalents. The plastic will be made using existing equipment at an estimated annual output of dozens of tons.

     Though the bioplastic is about 50% more expensive than its petroleum-based counterpart, it contributes to lower carbon emissions. Dainichiseika first will sell the plastic as raw material for machinery components. The Japanese company later will push the plastic for use in car interiors and wearable devices.

     Mitsui Chemicals formed a joint venture with two other companies to build a plant in India that produces biopolyol made from castor oil. The material will be churned out at a pace of 8,000 tons annually, with the plant set to run at full capacity by 2020

     The global market for bioplastics is projected to grow by 60% in 2018 compared with 2013. But the market in Japan totals roughly 50,000 tons, or less than 1% of all plastics. A major hurdle to widespread use of bioplastics is the cost, which can surpass that of regular plastics by over 50%. Manufacturers also may have to expand adoption of inedible plants to ward off criticism that they are depleting food resources.

(Nikkei)

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