The biodegradable, aliphatic polyester poly(lactic acid), PLA, is a leading bio-based alternative to petrochemical-derived plastic materials across a range of applications. Widely reported in the available literature as a benchmark for PLA production via the bulk ring-opening polymerization of lactides is the use of divalent tin catalysts, and particularly tin(II) bis(2-ethylhexanoate). We present an alternative zirconium-based system that combines an inexpensive Group IV metal with the robustness, high activity, control, and designed compatibility with existing facilities and processes, that are required for industrial use. We have carried out a comprehensive kinetic study and applied a combined experimental and theoretical approach to understanding the mechanism by which the polymerization of lactide proceeds in the presence of this system. In the laboratory-scale (20 g) polymerization of recrystallized racemic d,l-lactide (rac-lactide), we have measured catalyst turnover frequencies up to at least 56,000 h -1, and confirmed the reported protocols’ resistance toward undesirable epimerization, transesterification, and chain scission processes, deleterious to the properties of the polymer product. Further optimization and scale-up under industrial conditions have confirmed the relevance of the catalytic protocol to the commercial production of melt-polymerized PLA. We were able to undertake the efficient preparation of high-molecular-weight PLA on the 500-2000 g scale, via the selective and well-controlled polymerization of commercial polymer-grade l-lactide under challenging, industrially relevant conditions, and at metal concentrations as low as 8-12 ppm Zr by weight ([Zr] = 1.3 × 10 -3 to 1.9 × 10 -3 mol %). Under those conditions, a catalyst turnover number of at least 60,000 was attained, and the activity of the catalyst was comparable to that of tin(II) bis(2-ethylhexanoate).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2681-2695
Number of pages15
JournalACS Catalysis
Issue number4
Early online date7 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2023


  • amine tris(phenolate)
  • industrially relevant
  • lactide
  • liquid catalyst formulation
  • melt polymerization
  • poly(lactic acid)
  • ring-opening polymerization
  • zirconium

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Chemistry(all)


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