The most common material used in desktop 3D printers is Poly Lactic Acid or PLA. PLA is popular because it melts at a relatively low temperature and is generally forgiving when it comes to printing. It does not emit high amounts of odor and comes in the largest selection of colors. We have over 65 colors at GL Robotics. Even with its wide popularity, most hobbyists do not know what it really is and how it’s made.
Let me take you back to one of your first biology classes. Remember that chart of a plant with the big arrows showing the leaves absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) turning it into a sugar to use for energy to grow or make fruit? Well the brilliant people at NatureWorks figured out how to do the same thing. They turn greenhouse gases into polylactic acid. It’s a complicated process but I will try to explain the basic idea.
Plants such as beets and sugar cane are milled to extract the glucose or sugar. Enzymes are added to convert them to dextrose which is then converted to Lactic acid. The lactic acid is linked together to form a long chain through a process called polymerization which produces Ingeo plastic. There are different formulas and grades of Ingeo for their customers' applications. They, of course, have a grade for 3D filament. If you have ever printed with natural PLA then you have seen it in its natural form. Colorant is then added. NatureWorks Ingeo plastic is the basis for all GL Robotics’ PLA filament which is why we can say it’s 100% made in the USA.
Since NatureWorks PLA is made from plants, it is biodegradable. Unlike other forms of plastic, Ingeo will break down over time in the environment which is why you are seeing more products from baby diapers to coffee maker capsules be made with it. Unfortunately, this benefit is also why PLA is not a good choice for outdoor or high heat applications.
I hope this has given you a little insight into PLA filament and a better understanding of the 3D printing world we all live in. Enjoy!