Turning wood into plastic

Friday 28 May 2021

 
Plastics are one of the world’s largest polluters, taking hundreds of years to degrade in nature. A research team, led by YSE professor Yuan Yao and Liangbing Hu from the University of Maryland, has created a high-quality bioplastic from wood byproducts that they hope can solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues.

Efforts to shift from petrochemical plastics to renewable and biodegradable plastics have proven tricky — the production process can require toxic chemicals and is expensive, and the mechanical strength and water stability is often insufficient. But researchers have made a breakthrough, using wood by-products, that shows promise for producing more durable and sustainable bioplastics.

A study published in Nature Sustainability, co-authored by Yuan Yao, assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems at Yale School of the Environment (YSE), outlines the process of deconstructing the porous matrix of natural wood into a slurry. The researchers say the resulting material shows a high mechanical strength, stability when holding liquids, and UV-light resistance. It can also be recycled or safely biodegraded in the natural environment, and has a lower life-cycle environmental impact when compared with petroleum-based plastics and 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,” says 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.”

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