Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA, Poly) is a biodegradable thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch (in the United States and Canada), tapioca roots, chips or starch (mostly in Asia), or sugarcane (in the rest of the world). In 2010, PLA had the second highest consumption volume of any bioplastic of the world.
PLA can be processed by extrusion, injection molding, film and sheet casting, 3d printing, and spinning, providing access to a wide range of materials.
Being able to degrade into innocuous lactic acid, PLA is used as medical implants in the form of anchors, screws, plates, pins, rods, and as a mesh. Depending on the exact type used, it breaks down inside the body within 6 months to 2 years. This gradual degradation is desirable for a support structure, because it gradually transfers the load to the body (e.g. the bone) as that area heals. The strength characteristics of PLA and PLLA implants are well documented.
PLA can also be used as a decomposable packaging material, either cast, injection-molded, or spun. Cups and bags have been made from this material. In the form of a film, it shrinks upon heating, allowing it to be used in shrink tunnels. It is useful for producing loose-fill packaging, compost bags, food packaging, and disposable tableware. In the form of fibers and non-woven textiles, PLA also has many potential uses, for example as upholstery, disposable garments, awnings, feminine hygiene products, and diapers.
Racemic and regular PLLA has a low glass transition temperature, which is undesirable. A stereocomplex of PDLA and PLLA has a higher glass transition temperatures, lending it more mechanical strength. It has a wide range of applications, such as woven shirts (ironability), microwavable trays, hot-fill applications and even engineering plastics (in this case, the stereocomplex is blended with a rubber-like polymer such as ABS). Such blends also have good form stability and visual transparency, making them useful for low-end packaging applications. Pure poly-L-lactic acid (PLLA), on the other hand, is the main ingredient in Sculptra, a long-lasting facial volume enhancer, primarily used for lipoatrophy of cheeks. Progress in biotechnology has resulted in the development of commercial production of the D enantiomer form, something that was not possible until recently.
PLA is also used as a feedstock material in 3D printers. The properties enable PLA printed solids to be encased in plaster-like moulding materials, then burned out in a furnace, so that the resulting void can be filled with molten metal. This is known as “lost PLA casting”, a type of investment casting.