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British-Israeli researchers to improve biodegradable plastic

British-Israeli researchers to improve biodegradable plastic
Scientists from Bath and Tel Aviv Universities are collaborating on a project to improve the physical properties of plant-derived plastics.

Poly(lactic acid) or PLA is a biodegradable polymer derived from renewable plant sources such as maize, wheat or sugar. It is currently used in bottles, bags and films. PLA fibres can be woven into textiles, substituting for polyester.

The researchers at Bath and Tel Aviv are developing a new chemical catalyst to modify PLA production so as to enhance the polymer’s strength and heat resistance, with a view to extending its use into engineering applications for the automotive industry, microwaveable trays and cups for hot drinks.

Prof Matthew Davidson, Whorrod Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technologies at Bath University and director of the university’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, said: “PLA can be made up of two stereoisomeric monomers – chemical building blocks that are mirror images of one another. Using the current technology, when the plastic is made with both types present, they are jumbled randomly together within the structure of the plastic.”

“This new project will develop a selective catalyst that will build up a polymer of ‘left-handed’ and ‘right-handed’ building blocks in a structured order so that we can control the physical properties of the resulting plastic much more closely.”

The project is one of ten joint British-Israeli research projects which have won funding this year through the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX). The projects address global challenges in energy and the environment.