Could Your CD Contain Corn?

Sanyo Electric has developed an optical disc based on a polymer derived from corn which, the company says, is as sturdy as current plastic discs but will biodegrade when disposed of.

The company, which is claiming a world first for the technology, will begin selling its "MildDisc" in December. It is initially targeting volume customers producing prerecorded CDs, such as music CDs, VideoCDs, or CD-ROMs, said Ryan Watson, a Tokyo-based spokesperson for Sanyo, which is headquartered in Osaka.

The discs have been designed to tackle a problem common to many plastics upon disposal: If burned, toxic gases can be released into the atmosphere causing health and global warming concerns; but if buried, they don't break down, causing a potential problem for future generations. The MildDisc will degrade after a period of about 50 to 100 years and break down into water and carbon dioxide, Watson said. This time span means users don't have to worry about losing information during the lifetime of the discs, he said.

Out on the Farm

The production process begins when Cargill Dow in Nebraska converts corn into a polylactic acid. This is done by milling the corn to separate out the starch and then processing the starch to get unrefined dextrose. Using a fermentation process similar to that of beer production, the dextrose is converted into lactic acid, according to the company's Web site.

The acid is converted into a polymer to form the base of the optical disc by Sanyo in a process the company developed with Japan's Mitsui Chemicals, for which the companies have applied for patents, Watson said.

Sanyo estimates that around 85 corn kernels, each weighing an average of 0.5 grams, are needed to produce enough polymer for a single 4.7-inch optical disc, so an average ear of corn can produce around ten discs. The International Recording Media Association estimates world demand for CDs at around 9 billion annually, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates world corn production at about 600 million tons, so producing enough polymer to satisfy the demand for discs would require less than 0.1 percent of the world's corn production.

Coming Soon?

Initially the company will focus on discs for prerecorded applications, although it is considering recordable and rewritable versions of the MildDisc. DVDs based on the same technology are also a future possibility, according to Watson.

When sales begin at the end of this year, the blanks disc will sell in bulk for roughly three times the price of current plastic discs. However, Sanyo estimates it will be able to reduce this premium to around 1.2 times as production ramps up and volume shipments begin.

Cargill Dow is using the same initial process and its own refining process to produce its NatureWorks PLA polymer film. Several companies are using the film to produce a range of goods including cartons, candy wrappers, kitchen utensils, and acrylic sheets and fabrics.

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