Sporadically in this series of blog updates, I’ll summarize some of the unusual feedstock sources that researchers are transforming into bio-based chemicals, plastics, or fillers for plastics. (Part 1 of this series is here.)
Since food is always a major part of the holiday season, the examples below are all food-related. Depending on your perspective about each idea, you might at first think these developments sound exciting, clever, provocative, dubious, bizarre, or sometimes almost silly – but always interesting:
- Cheese byproducts: Specifically whey protein, 40% of which is usually discarded in cheese production, is being turned into a biodegradable packaging plastic that’s said to have good oxygen-barrier properties.
- Sugar beet waste: Italy’s largest sugar producer reportedly is developing a way to use its waste sugar-beet molasses in a fermentation process to produce lactic acid and PHA bioplastic.
- Coconut husks: Ford Motor Co. is looking at using surplus coconut husks (coir) from an agricultural products company to reinforce plastic in auto parts, such as the trunk load floor of the Focus Electric vehicle, where coconut fibers are combined with polypropylene in a 50-50 ratio.
And here’s a couple more examples that you might want to skip if you’re about have a meal, or just ate:
- Blood meal: This material a waste product from meat production, and New Zealand researchers are reportedly commercializing a process for turning it into a bioplastic with LDPE-like properties.
- Elephant dung: Well not exactly; rather it’s the enzymes produced by gut bacteria found in the dung that are interesting. Isolating enzymes such as xylanases and arabinases and using them to reduce tough lignocellulosic biomass (including wood) would allow more types of biomass to be converted into sugars, and then fermented into bio-based chemicals, according to a research summary from DSM.
As with research that led to the accidental discovery of many now-conventional polymers, one never knows when this kind of R&D will lead to something very elephantine in importance.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.