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A new technique turns organic biomass into durable plastic

Scientists have created a new type of plastic made from organic plant waste. It could be used to make packaging, textiles, medicine, and even electronics.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic… yeah, that didn’t age too well.

Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and the plastics created from them has been identified as one of the most effective and immediate ways to slow climate change. But ditching them won’t be easy.

Finding an alternative that is equally (if not more) durable, cost-effective, easily to process, and versatile as traditional plastic is a challenge that has required much experimentation over the past decade.

Ocean plants and algae have been put forward as a possible dupe for plastic wrappers and straws, but their water-soluble properties make them unable to withstand moisture for long periods, knocking them out of the running as a permanent solution.

Thanks to a new discovery in a Switzerland-based laboratory, it looks like there is hope on the horizon. Students have used their knowledge of chemistry to develop a plant-based material that is strong enough to use as packaging, textiles, medicine, and electronics.

Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) School of Basic Sciences have successfully developed the biomass-derived plastic which is similar to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most widely used forms of plastic.

Led by Professor Jeremy Luterbacher, the team ‘cooked’ wood and non-edible plant materials from agricultural waste called ‘lignocellulosic biomass’ in cheap, available chemicals to create a material similar to plastic.

The formula was based on a discovery Luterbacher made back in 2016. Experimenting with an array of chemicals, he discovered that adding aldehyde – an organic chemical compound – to plant matter helped to stabilise it, making it more durable during extraction.

And voilà – in one simple step, a plastic precursor was created. The students then fed the material into a 3D printer to create the web-looking ‘plastic’ leaf prototype seen in the image above.

‘By keeping the sugar structure intact within the molecular structure of the plastic, the chemistry is much simpler than current alternatives,’ said Professor Luterbacher.

Since the solidified sugar structures are formed out of organic biomass, they can be naturally and easily recycled. This makes the compound an especially attractive alternative to plastic, which can be difficult to recycle, never fully breaks down, and also releases toxic ‘forever chemicals’ into ecosystems and our bodies.

Prof Luterbacher continued, ‘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.’

It’s an awesome discovery, especially in the lead up to No Plastic July. Let’s hope we see more experiments yielding these kinds of results in the near future!