The Complex Simplicity of Corn

Some times genius just appears in the lightning flash of an idea by an individual, like Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. Far more often, however, human innovation is the result of a long and painstaking, anonymous process of trial and error. ‘Let’s try this’ ‘what about that’. Such is the story of bioplastics.

The maize grain known as corn is one of the most widespread and useful crops grown on the planet – and the two factors are directly related.

Cultivation of corn most likely originated in Mexico or Central America. The nutritious grain was grown and used by the local people for centuries before, around 1,000 AD, when the Aztecs carried it to the Caribbean. Explorer Christopher Columbus found corn being grown by the Arawak people in 1493 and it was taken back to Spain. From here it spread throughout Europe. The Portuguese took it to South Africa where its ability to be grown easily, while providing a plentiful food stock, meant that it became popular. By the mid-16th century, corn was being grown in China. Its heartiness, adaptability and relatively low cost to raise have since made it a staple of world economies, diets and, increasingly, new technologies.

The food use of corn revealed wide ranging possibilities for corn starch or cornflour, which is ground from the endosperm or heart of the corn kernel. Mixed with water or milk, corn starch provides an effective anti-caking agent in powdered sugar, and as a binding agent or thickener in other food preparations.

A World of New Applications

As human knowledge of chemistry became more detailed and precise, these early, informal R&D investigations on the culinary front were put on a proper scientific footing and many new possible applications were developed.

We use corn starch to make our range of thermoplastic (TPS) polymers because enough starch can be extracted from one corn cob to make production of our products cost effective. It is also renewable and can be grown easily and economically.

However what makes us unique as a bioplastics company is our patented technology which maximises the effectiveness of the long, linear amylose molecule, which in our view is the heart of the kernel. The true secret ingredient in corn.

The amylose molecule was there in corn all along, but it took centuries of chemical and scientific advancement to appreciate its significance. Simply put, the amylose molecule has unique chemical properties that allow for a diverse range of applications. It is commonly used as a dietary fibre additive for baked products, a thickening agent or a film for coating foods and pharmaceuticals.

Plantic Technologies has the technology which allows this bioplastic to be modified to suit an even broader range of needs across the complete spectrum of conventional plastics applications. A single molecule, given the right technological intelligence, is thus creating a world of positive change.

Wide Ranging Benefits

Plantic’s unique technology ensures a diverse range of bioplastics that can be produced cost-effectively, without complicated manufacturing processes or unnecessary wastage. 40% less real energy is required to produce Plantic bioplastic material than conventional petrochemically derived plastics, which don’t biodegrade and create still further costs in waste management. Plantic-based products also offer a range of immediate performance benefits. They are inherently anti-static. They provide an excellent gas, taint and odour barrier, and are safe and easy to work with. They are sealable, printable and laser etchable. Given that they can also be optimised to work with conventional plastics, the potential for the technology is effectively unlimited.

The company’s goal is to explore, and bring into common use, its starch based plastic across a broad range of applications. This is achieved by Plantic working with industry leaders to jointly develop finished products and then take them to market through their established manufacturing and distribution channels. In addition, Plantic is selling resins to leading materials companies for distribution and/or conversion into specific geographic territories.

Plantic is being developed as a ‘drop-in’ replacement for traditional plastics allowing manufacturers and consumers to have access to a material which is bioresponsible without compromising on form and function.

Plastics made from Plantic’s patented high-amylose corn starch technology are clearly differentiated because of the natural functional properties of biodegradability and gas barrier, a property which is becoming widely used to extend the shelf life of food and beverage products. The cost of Plantic material can vary depending on the specific formulation and application; however, the company has the overarching goal of being able to compete with common plastics, but with the added functional benefits of its material.

Biodegradability can be controlled through both formulation and manufacturing processes whilst the natural gas barrier characteristics allow application in protective packaging for long shelf life products.

The materials developed, manufactured and sold by Plantic are either in a sheet (typically 200 to 350 micron in thickness) or resin granule form depending on the specific application. The process of making Plantic® is via the compounding of corn starch along with various ingredients to deliver a broad range of physical properties to suit the demands of a specific application and method of plastics conversion.

Other biomaterials are produced through different methods such as enzyme or bacterial decomposition or fermentation. These materials typically consume substantial energy to produce and require complex processes and considerable capital infrastructure, much the same as a full scale petrochemical refinery. The supply of corn feedstock for these materials is in direct competition with biofuels, various foods for human consumption, corn by-products and animal feed. By contrast, Plantic’s feedstock, high amylose corn, is less susceptible to fluctuations in global corn prices as a result of its specialisised applications.

Plantic is working closely with partners in the food, packaging and distribution/logistics industries to develop and commericalise further applications for the product.

Plantic holds an extensive set of patents in the most relevant markets to protect its IP. So, the story of corn and the exceedingly useful amylose molecule may just be only beginning.

The Complex Simplicity of Corn