Next-generation bioplastics ‘could be made from trees’

Southampton-based plastic manufacturer Biome Bioplastics has released ground-breaking research that demonstrates the feasibility of creating low-cost, high-performance bioplastics using lignin derived from wood.

The research, undertaken in conjunction with the University of Warwick’s Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining, reveals that lignin – a waste product of the pulp and paper industry – is a potentially abundant feedstock for the chemicals that could provide the next generation of bioplastics. (Scroll down for video).

“We are extremely pleased with the initial results of the feasibility study, which show strong promise for integration into our product lines,” said Biome Bioplastics’ chief executive Paul Mines.

“Looking ahead, we anticipate that the availability of a high performance polymer, manufactured economically from renewable sources, would considerably increase the bioplastic market.”

The project has successfully demonstrated that bacteria can be effective in the selective degradation of lignin and that the breakdown pathway can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology. Crucially, several organic chemicals have been produced at laboratory scale in promising yields that have potential use in bioplastic manufacture.

Industrial revolution

Initial scale-up trials on several of these target chemicals have demonstrated the potential for them to be produced at industrial scale, suggesting the commercial feasibility of using lignin-derived chemicals as an alternative for their petrochemical counterparts.

Industrial biotechnology – the use of biological materials to make industrial products – is recognised by the UK government as a promising means of developing less carbon intensive products and processes, with an estimated value to the UK of between £4bn and £12bn by 2025.

Professor Tim Bugg, director of the Warwick Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining, said: “Scientists have been trying to extract chemicals from lignin for more than 30 years. Previously, chemical methods have been used but these produce a very complex mixture of hundreds of different products in very small amounts.

“By using bacteria found in soil we can manipulate the lignin degradation pathway to control the chemicals produced. This is groundbreaking work. We’ve made great progress over the last year and the results are very exciting.” 

Video: The future of bioplastics

Luke Nicholls

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