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PET-like plastics have been created from biomass waste

Plastics are detrimental to the environment. Not only do plastics play a role in fueling climate change, but they are also devastating to Earth’s ecosystems and all the plants and animals that depend on them. 

It’s no surprise that there have been significant endeavors to reduce plastic production and use. However, finding a replacement for fossil fuel-based plastics is difficult since they are convenient and incredibly durable. 

However, researchers in the EPFL’s School of Basic Sciences have found a way to make biomass-derived plastic similar to PET plastics that could replace many widely used plastics. The team was led by Professor Jeremy Luterbacher, who explained the process used to make these new plastics.

“We essentially just ‘cook’ wood or other non-edible plant material, such as agricultural wastes, in inexpensive chemicals to produce the plastic precursor in one step. By keeping the sugar structure intact within the molecular structure of the plastic, the chemistry is much simpler than current alternatives.”

The method is based on a previous finding made in 2016. By adding an aldehyde, the researchers could stabilize the plant material to prevent destruction during extraction.

“By using a different aldehyde – glyoxylic acid instead of formaldehyde – we could simply clip ‘sticky’ groups onto both sides of the sugar molecules, which then allows them to act as plastic building block,” said study first author Lorenz Manker. “By using this simple technique, we are able to convert up to 25% of the weight of agricultural waste, or 95% of purified sugar, into plastic.” 

The researchers believe their plastic can be used for various purposes, including medicine, electronics, and even textiles. “The plastic has very exciting properties, notably for applications like food packaging,” said Professor Luterbacher. And what makes the plastic unique is the presence of the intact sugar structure. This makes it incredibly easy to make because you don’t have to modify what nature gives you, and simple to degrade because it can go back to a molecule that is already abundant in nature.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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