ALBANY, CALIF. — Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Lapol, L.L.C., Santa Barbara, Calif., hope to make corn-derived plastics more tolerant to heat, which potentially may lead to the use of biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) in more food and beverage containers, such as those used in ketchup and juice, and in coffee cup lids.

Corn-based plastics offer an environmental alternative to petroleum-based plastics, but petroleum-based plastics hold up to heat better. William J. Orts, a chemist with the U.S.D.A., and collaborators from Lapol have developed a heat-deflection temperature modifier that is more than 90% corn-based and is fully biodegradable. The modifier would be blended with PLA to make it more tolerant to heat. Work is taking place at the U.S.D.A.’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany.