News24

Nanotechnology turns plants into plastic

2012-02-17 08:26

London - Dutch scientists have found a way of turning plant matter into the building blocks of common plastics using a nanotechnology process that offers an alternative to oil-based production.

The team from Utrecht University and Dow Chemical Co produced ethylene and propylene - precursors of materials found in everything from CDs to carrier bags and carpets - after developing a new kind of iron catalyst made of nanoparticles.

Existing bioplastics, which are made from crops such as corn and sugar, have only limited use as they are not exact substitutes for oil-based products.

The new system, by contrast, produces chemicals that are the same as those made in petrochemical works, allowing them to be used in a wide range of industries.

This also means they will not be biodegradable, although they will be made from renewable resources.

Unwanted by-product

Researcher Krijn De Jong and his colleagues envisage using non-food sources of biomass for the new process, such as fast-growing trees or grasses, rather than traditional crops, in order to reduce competition for resources between food and fuel.

Plastics made from biomass could, however, be vulnerable to the same criticism that has beset biofuel production.

Critics say the production of some biofuels can occupy land that would otherwise be used for agricultural purposes, thus limiting food and water resources for a rapidly rising world population.

Some biofuel production could also increase carbon emissions, especially if rainforests are cut down to facilitate production.

The research by De Jong and his colleagues, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science, is still at an early stage. It now requires larger-scale testing and pilot projects, so it will not reach the market for several years.

Diminishing reserves of fossil fuels and rising greenhouse gas emissions suggest there should be increased demand for bioplastics. But that argument could be disrupted by recent vast finds of shale gas, which now provide a cheap alternative feedstock for ethylene in the US.

The Dutch-designed catalysts consist of tiny nanoparticles separated from each other on carbon nanofibres. In laboratory tests, the catalysts proved highly effective at converting biomass-derived synthesis gas - a mix for hydrogen and carbon monoxide - in ethylene and propylene.

Importantly, the process worked without producing large amounts of methane, an unwanted by-product of another catalytic process using large iron particles.

The team now plan to increase catalyst production by linking with experts from Johnson Matthey, the world's largest supplier of catalytic converters for vehicles.

Nanotechnology, which involves designing and manufacturing materials on the scale of one-billionth of a metre, is a rapidly expanding area of materials science with applications in medicine, electronics and coatings.

Comments
  • David - 2012-02-17 08:34

    Oh goody, more plastic to cause pollution of the oceans. Can't we rather turn the plants into food to feed the starving millions?

      Leandra - 2012-02-17 11:06

      They stated that they would like to test other biomass instead of crops. In addition, no more methane...as long as there is a need for plastic, there will be plastic. Why not create it more efficiently??

  • Skia - 2012-02-17 09:08

    just thinking the staple foods around the world, wheat, maize and rice, are mostly waste biomass. so no need to grow special crops for it. and on the disposal of plastic a canadian teenager last year or the year before made a bio-digester for plastic (i can't remember the details now but if i find a link i'll add it later)

  • Marco - 2012-02-17 09:29

    Using plants to make plastics is nothing new. We did this back in 1862. In other words plants were used to make our first plastics. This article seems to be ignoring this. A good plant to use is the hemp plant aka Marijuana. Henry ford even constructed a car out of hemp plastic and using hemp fuel. On the plus side it's biodegradable. Why we don't use it? Go ask the oil companies.

      Clive.D.Buckley - 2012-02-17 14:30

      did you even read the article?? "Existing bioplastics, which are made from crops such as corn and sugar, have only limited use as they are not exact substitutes for oil-based products. The new system, by contrast, produces chemicals that are the same as those made in petrochemical works, allowing them to be used in a wide range of industries. This also means they will not be biodegradable, although they will be made from renewable resources."

  • ludlowdj - 2012-02-17 14:57

    I thought they had perfected this with margarine already, which by the way is still banned in some US states.

  • Marco - 2012-02-17 15:00

    @NuttyZA You would be right. However I mentioned the hemp plant with a reason. The hemp plastic which was used by Henry Ford was reported to be 10 times stronger then steel. This was due to the Hemp plant having strong fiber, the strongest plant fiber on the planet As the article points out bioplastic is currently being produce from sugar and corn. This is why their inferior. In other words this technology is silly. It's not needed. For we can grow hemp. However I recognize why people would do such research. Hemp is highly regulated/illegal due to it's harmless recreational use.

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