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03-26-2021

Yale scientists are turning wood into high quality bioplastic

In a new study from the Yale School of the Environment, experts have had a breakthrough in converting wood byproducts into high quality plastic. The researchers hope they can solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues by producing sustainable bioplastics.

Up until now, the production of bioplastics has been challenging. It requires an expensive process that involves toxic chemicals. 

The Yale team has created a much more sustainable method of renewable plastic production by deconstructing the porous matrix of natural wood. The resulting material shows a high mechanical strength, stability when holding liquids, and UV-light resistance, said the researchers. 

The wood-based bioplastic can be safely recycled or biodegraded in the natural environment, and has a lower environmental impact over the course of its life cycle when compared other biodegradable plastics.

“There are many people who have tried to develop these kinds of polymers in plastic, but the mechanical strands are not good enough to replace the plastics we currently use, which are made mostly from fossil fuels,” said study co-author Professor Yuan Yao. 

“We’ve developed a straightforward and simple manufacturing process that generates biomass-based plastics from wood, but also plastic that delivers good mechanical properties as well.”

Professor Yao conducted a comprehensive life cycle assessment to test the environmental impacts of the bioplastic against common plastics. Sheets of the bioplastic that were buried in soil were found to fracture after two weeks and had completely degraded after three months.

In addition, the experts report that the bioplastic can be broken back down, recycled, and reused.

“That, to me, is what really makes this plastic good: It can all be recycled or biodegraded,” said Professor Yao. “We’ve minimized all of the materials and the waste going into nature.”

Study co-author Liangbing Hu is a professor at the Center for Materials Innovation at the University of Maryland. He explained that the bioplastic has numerous applications. It can be molded into a film for use in plastic bags and packaging, which would help eliminate a major source of plastic waste. 

The bioplastic can also be molded into different shapes, according to Professor Hu, and has potential for use in automobile manufacturing.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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