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Keywords:

  • lactic acid;
  • oxychemicals purification;
  • polymers;
  • production;
  • solvents

Abstract

Lactic acid, the most widely occurring hydroxycarboxylic acid, is an enigmatic chemical. It was discovered a long time ago and its use in food preservation and processing and as a specialty chemical has grown over the years with current production of about 120 000 t yr−1. Its potential as a major chemical feedstock, derived from renewable carbohydrates by sustainable technologies, to make plastics, fibers, solvents and oxygenated chemicals, had also been recognized. Recently, new technologies have emerged that can overcome major barriers in separations and purification and processing. Advances in electrodialysis (ED) and bipolar membranes and one particular process configuration termed the ‘double ED’ process, a specific combination of desalting ED followed by ‘water-splitting’ ED with bipolar membranes, has given very promising results, showing a strong potential for an efficient and economic process for recovery and purification of lactic acid without generating a salt waste. For the production of polymers, several advances in catalysts and process improvements have occurred in the technology to produce dilactide and its polymerization to produce plastics and fibers by Natureworks LLC, which is the leader in lactic polymer technology and markets. Other advances in esterification technology with pervaporation and development of biosolvent blends also have a high potential for ‘green’ solvents in many applications. Recently, a considerable amount of pioneering effort in technology, product development and commercialization has been expended by several companies. To overcome the barriers to replace long-established petroleum-derived products, further real support from consumer, regulatory and government organizations is also needed. Copyright © 2006 Society of Chemical Industry