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Biome Research Confirms Next-Generation Bioplastics Could Be Derived from Trees

Image credit: Biome Bioplastics

A research project led by Biome Bioplastics, one of the UK’s leading developers of natural plastics, has demonstrated the feasibility of extracting organic chemicals from lignin — a complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants and trees — for the manufacture of bioplastics.

The results stem from a grant from the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, awarded to a consortium led by Biome Bioplastics in early 2013 to investigate lignin as a potential new source of organic chemicals for bioplastics manufacture, which could significantly reduce costs and increase performance of these sustainable materials.

Just last month, growth strategy firm Frost & Sullivan projected lignin could become the main renewable, aromatic resource for the chemical industry and allow petrochemists to secure an alternative, renewable source of raw material. As a waste product of the pulp and paper industry, lignin is an abundant and low-cost feedstock for high-performance chemicals that Biome says could provide the foundation for the next generation of bioplastics.

The research was undertaken in conjunction with the University of Warwick’s Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining led by Professor Tim Bugg, whose team has been working to develop methods to control the breakdown of lignin using bacteria and extract these chemicals in significant quantities.

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. Biome says several crucial organic chemicals have been produced in promising yields that have potential use in bioplastic manufacture.

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. Biome says it has also transformed these chemicals into a material that shows promising properties for use as an advanced bioplastic.

“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,” Bugg explains. “This is groundbreaking work. We’ve made great progress over the last year and the results are very exciting. “

The next phase of the project will examine how the yields of these organic chemicals can be increased using different bacteria and explore options for further scale-up of this technology. The first commercial target is to use the lignin-derived chemicals to replace the oil-derived equivalents currently used to convey strength and flexibility in some of Biome Bioplastics’ products, further reducing cost and enhancing sustainability.

“We are extremely pleased with the initial results of the feasibility study, which show strong promise for integration into our product lines,” said Biome CEO 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.”

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 £4-12bn by 2025.

Biome's work with lignin jumps off from the company's previous work with plant-based bioplastics — in November, Biome announced it had developed a range of compostable and biodegradable materials for notoriously unrecyclable, single-serve coffee pods, based on renewable sources such as plant starches and tree by-products.

Speaking of bio-based materials, last month INVISTA, owner of the LYCRA® brand, introduced the first commercial offering of a bio-derived spandex — the stretchy fabric commonly found in swimwear, sportswear and dancewear. The company says approximately 70 percent by weight of the new LYCRA® bio-derived spandex fiber comes from a renewable source made from dextrose, derived from corn.

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