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Scientists Make Renewable Plastic From Pine Needles

19 January 2017, 7:41 am EST By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
Scientists at the University of Bath in the UK have developed a process to make renewable plastic from pinene found in pine needles and a paper industry waste.  ( Kevork Djansezian|Getty Images )

The era of renewable plastics seems to be here. This follows the feat of scientists at the University of Bath who developed a process for making renewable plastic from a chemical called pinene found in pine needles.

The breakthrough is deemed significant for the scientists who are attached to the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) seeking to replace current plastics made from crude oil that is unsustainable.

The research is at an early stage and they have made a few grams but the hope is there to scale up the quantities.

"We're not talking about recycling old Christmas trees into plastics, but rather using a waste product from an industry that would otherwise be thrown away, and turning it into something useful," explained Helena Quilter, Ph.D. student at the Center for Sustainable Chemical Technologies.

The results of the research have been published in the journal Polymer Chemistry.

Viable Substitution

Degradable plastics, made from polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn and sugar cane earns its flexibility by mixing with rubbery polymer caprolactone, which originates from crude oil. However, that is not sustainable.

In the new scenario, if pinene is turned into a rubber polymer, it can replace caprolactone and emerge as an eco-friendly alternative to petrochemicals.

Optimism persists that by combining pinene polymer with PLA, 100 percent sustainable plastic that is usable in food packaging and plastic bags can be created.

Focus On Sustainable Sources

The best part of the project is the effort in making plastic from sustainable sources in a big difference to the environment.

"This reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and provides a renewable feedstock that has the potential to revolutionize the chemical industry," noted Professor Matthew Davidson, who is the Director of the CSCT.

The Bath university researchers are expecting a wide range of applications to the renewable plastic including medical implants. According to them, efforts are on to tap other terpenes including limonene from orange to replace petrochemicals in many products like plastics and pharmaceuticals.

High Growth Forecast For Bioplastics

Meanwhile, a market research group has predicted big growth for the global bioplastics market with at least 30 percent annual growth.

In the report, "Global Markets and Technologies for Bioplastics", BCC Research examined the global bioplastic market scenario for five-years from 2015 to 2020.

It defines bioplastics as polymer materials produced by the synthesis of materials containing renewable organic materials and also looks at the use of renewable resources that create bio-monomers to replace petroleum-based monomers.

Investment Up

The expanding market of bio-based materials and chemicals markets has been mentioned by Lux Research's latest report. It said the trend is reflective of the drive for sustainability and quest for alternatives to petroleum feedstocks.

That change is also echoing in the funding preferences of Venture Capitalists. In 2016, The VCs' shifted focus to disruptive synthetic biology and conversion technologies.

It said Synbio start-ups took $300 million in funding that was almost 53 percent of all VC funding in 2016.

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