A new catalyst developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University could bump sugar-based bioplastics up into a wider variety of uses that require greater durability. Using plant sugars such as corn, wheat, and sugarcane combined with cornstarch, the research team is confident that the new bioplastic will be even more durable than petroleum-based plastics, yet it will biodegrade quickly and safely. Imagine that — plastic without consequences!
Plastic with Consequences
To be more accurate, every plastic has consequences, whether it’s made from plants or petrochemicals. At this moment in history we’re in the middle of finding a balance of consequences that will continue to sustain life on earth despite a soaring population. As a group, lightweight plastics are a more sustainable (that is, fuel saving) alternative to steel and other heavyweight metal parts, but that means even more plastics are going to enter the waste stream and pose an even greater burden. Plastic waste disposal is already a major logistical issue for the U.S. Department of Defense, which is eagerly funding research into compostable or reusable bioplastics for military supplies in order to address the problem.
Better Catalysts for Bioplastics
The crux of the Tel Aviv research is a group of new catalysts that boast a couple of important advantages (catalysts are the substances that trigger a chemical reaction). The new catalysts enable more flexibility in manipulating the process, opening up the potential for achieving improvements in heat resistance and overall durability. Unlike conventional catalysts used in bioplastic production, they are also non-toxic.
Stronger Bioplastics from Sugar
So far, the Tel Aviv research has yielded a bioplastic called polylactic acid, that appears similar to polystyrene (in its expanded form, think Styrofoam), which the team formed into rigid, transparent drinking cups. The cups are able to withstand temperatures only up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, but further improvements are expected in partnership with researchers at the University of Aachen and the University of Bath. Right now, polylactic acid is suitable for a variety of light-use products such as bottles and bags, but some day in the future it could show up in more heavy duty items including cars and other vehicles.
For more on sugar-based plastics, check out this article in Sulzer Technical Review (pdf).
Image: Cupcakes on flickr.com by clevercupcakes.
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