EPFL unveils PET-like plastic made from non-edible parts of plants

SWITZERLAND – The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) has developed a PET-like plastic “made easily” from the non-edible parts of plants, challenging fossil-based plastics.

The scientists report that their material is tough, heat-resistant, and capable of creating a good barrier to gases like oxygen, making it a candidate for food packaging.

Due to its structure, the new plastic can also reportedly be chemically recycled and degrade back to sugars in the environment.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious that moving away from fossil fuels and avoiding the accumulation of plastics in the environment are key to addressing the challenge of climate change,” explains the scientists.

“In that vein, there are considerable efforts to develop degradable or recyclable polymers made from non-edible plant material referred to as ‘lignocellulosic biomass.’”

On how they develop biomass-derived plastic similar to PET, Professor Jeremy Luterbacher at EPFL’s School of Basic Sciences plastics said: “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 technique is based on a discovery that Luterbacher and his colleagues published in 2016, where adding an aldehyde could stabilize certain fractions of plant material and avoid their destruction during extraction.

By repurposing this chemistry, the researchers were able to rebuild a new useful bio-based chemical as a plastic precursor.

“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 blocks,” says Lorenz Manker, the study’s first author.

“With 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 scientists believe that the properties of this new material could allow it to be used in applications ranging from packaging and textiles to medicine and electronics.

The researchers have apparently already made packaging films, fibers that could be spun into clothing or other textiles, and filaments for 3D printing.

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