Measurement and Testing

  • Can Petroleum-Free Plastic Be Produced?

Can Petroleum-Free Plastic Be Produced?

Feb 23 2018 Read 1024 Times

As well as powering vehicles, petroleum plays a key role in producing global products like plastic. Though with an inevitable oil shortage on the horizon, innovators are looking at new ways to produce plastic. The latest advancement has seen a team of scientists create plastic using little more than sugar and corncobs.

Tackling plastic's carbon footprint

Currently, plastic has an enormous carbon footprint. The petroleum-based material produces at least 100 million tons of carbon emissions every year. Now, a team of US researchers have developed an efficient, inexpensive way of producing renewable plastic. And there's not a drop of oil in sight. Instead, they champion little more than sugar and corncobs. The eco-friendly plastic has created such a buzz that experts are suggesting that it could soon replace polyethylene terephthalate (PET), aka one of the world’s most common plastics.

As well as having an ultra-low environmental footprint, the new plastic also performs better when it comes to sealing out gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can compromise food preservation. This would make it a top contender for food storage containers and other kitchen utensils.

Turning corn cobs and sugar into FDCA

The team was fronted by Jim Dumesic, a chemical engineer at Madison's University of Wisconsin. After 10 years of research, he and his team discovered a potent a solvent known as γ-valerolactone (GVL). The colourless liquid can be harvested from renewable plant sources like corncobs, and when blended with water and an organic acid catalyst they transform high-fructose GVL into an organic compound used to create FDCA.

According to co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala, the new recipe solves three major problems for the plastics production industry. First, it champions a renewable carbon source instead of fossil fuels. Second, it shuns corrosive acids and therefore eliminates the need for expensive reactors. Finally, it allows manufacturers to use FDCA as a catalyst in the reaction which recycles the GVL solvent and in turn, minimises both environmental and financial costs.

A new era of eco-friendly plastic

“It makes the process much more green,” comments Hussain Motagamwala. “Ultimately, if I'm making my plastic out of fossil fuels, [that means] I'm changing carbon from the ground into the atmosphere,” he says. “Whereas if it's coming from plants you at least have a possibility of making a product that's carbon neutral or even carbon negative.”

Now, the team are working on ways to bring the costs down even further and position the new plant-based fuel as a serious competitor to fossil fuel derived plastics.

As well as harming the environment, oil-based products can also have a severe impact on human health. For a closer look at the dangers of inhaling carcinogenic chemicals don't miss 'From Crude Oil to Cigarettes – Benzene, the Hidden Killer'.

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