New PET-like plastic made from waste biomass

new plastic

Scientists have developed a new, PET-like plastic made from the non-edible parts of plants. The plastic is tough, heat-resistant, and a good barrier to gases such as oxygen, making it a promising candidate for food packaging.

Due to its structure, the new plastic can also be chemically recycled and degrade back to harmless sugars in the environment.

Australia’s national waste plan sets targets for 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025 and phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic packaging. While efforts are being made to develop alternative plastic replacements it has been challenging to find something that matches plastic for its low cost, heat stability, mechanical strength and ability to be processed.

But scientists, led by Professor Jeremy Luterbacher at EPFL’s School of Basic Sciences in Switzerland, have developed a biomass-derived plastic, similar to PET, that meets the criteria for replacing several current plastics while also being more environmentally friendly.

“We essentially just ‘cook’ wood or other non-edible plant material, such as agricultural wastes, in inexpensive chemicals to produce the plastic precursor in one step,” says Luterbacher. “By keeping the sugar structure intact within the molecular structure of the plastic, the chemistry is much simpler than current alternatives.”

The technique is based on a discovery that Luterbacher and his colleagues published in 2016, where adding an aldehyde could stabilise certain fractions of plant material and avoid their destruction during extraction. By repurposing this chemistry, the researchers could rebuild a new useful bio-based chemical as a plastic precursor.

“By using a different aldehyde – glyoxylic acid instead of formaldehyde – we could simply clip ‘sticky’ groups onto both sides of the sugar molecules, which then allows them to act as plastic building blocks,” says Lorenz Manker, the study’s first author. “By using this simple technique, we are able to convert up to 25 per cent of the weight of agricultural waste, or 95 per cent of purified sugar, into plastic.”

The well-rounded properties of these plastics could allow them to be used in applications ranging from packaging and textiles to medicine and electronics. The researchers have already made packaging films, fibres that could be spun into clothing or other textiles, and filaments for 3D-printing.

“The plastic has very exciting properties, notably for applications like food packaging,” says Luterbacher. “And what makes the plastic unique is the presence of the intact sugar structure. This makes it incredibly easy to make because you don’t have to modify what nature gives you, and simple to degrade because it can go back to a molecule that is already abundant in nature.”

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