A trio of corn-based products is poised to capitalize on growing demand for bioplastics, according to a new market analysis.

This demand surge will result from higher oil and natural gas prices that make plant-based plastics more cost-competitive, strong consumer demand for “greener” plastic products and more government restrictions on the use on nondegradable products like plastic bags. That's the conclusion of World Bioplastics to 2013, an analysis by the Freedonia Group.

PLA (polylactide) is one of them, marketed as Ingeo. One bushel of corn converts to about 20¾ lbs. of Ingeo. It's produced by NatureWorks, a Cargill-owned company, at its refinery in Blair, NE. NatureWorks has expanded PLA production to 140,000 metric tons/year; a second PLA plant is under development and the company's Web site lists more than 150 partners that use the product.

A major breakthrough came in 2006, when Walmart chose PLA (Ingeo) to package fresh produce. More recently, FritoLay began using Ingeo. By Earth Day 2010, the company will be “packaging corn products in a fully compostable corn-based bag,” according to NatureWorks.

Ingeo's small carbon footprint is a key selling point, he says, noting 285,000 cups and 12,000 deli containers made from Ingeo were used at this winter's Copenhagen conference on global warming. The resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to eliminating 12,305 miles of driving. And the conference hall was carpeted with Ingeo.

Sorona is another corn-based bioplastic, made by DuPont. It may be best known for its use in high-performance textiles, but it's actually based on propanediol, a diverse molecule with applications in personal care products, cosmetics and in industrial processes to make other polymers, according to DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products. Sorona is based on 1,3-propanediol. It's 37% corn-based and produced in Loudon, TN, adjacent to the Tate & Lyle corn refinery.

Last fall, Susterra, another propanediol product, won approval as a base coolant for automotive cooling systems from the American Society for Testing and Materials. DuPont sources say Susterra offers an alternative to glycol-based coolants that combines excellent performance with environmental benefits.

Mirel, the newest of the three bioplastics, “is going to become a mainstream product in the marketplace” with applications in durable products such as packaging and consumer goods, says Telles. A joint venture by Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland, Telles began producing Mirel this winter at a facility next to ADM's wet corn mill in Clinton, IA. One bushel of corn produces about 10 lbs. of Mirel. One advantage is that Mirel performs much like the plastics consumers already use.

The firm also reports serious interest in Mirel for agricultural applications such as mulch films, bale wraps, netting and plant pots because it will biodegrade in the soil.

“We could see demand for Mirel at a billion pounds or more within the next five to 10 years,” Telles estimates.

What will bioplastics' success mean for corn growers?

Limited initial corn demand for bioplastics can change as projected growth materializes. Corn use for Ingeo and Mirel could top 75 million bushels by the time a second Ingeo plant is fully operational and the Clinton Mirel plant is operating at its planned capacity. And while numbers aren't released for Sorona, a DuPont Tate & Lyle source says Sorona and its offshoot products are going into “large-volume markets where the use levels are not trivial.”