New ‘plug-in’ process generates environmentally friendly bioplastics
Bioplastics — biodegradable plastics made from biological substances rather than petroleum — can be created in a more economical and environmentally friendly way from the byproducts of corn stubble, grasses and mesquite agricultural production, according to a new study by a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist.
This new approach involves a “plug-in” preconditioning process, a simple adjustment for biofuel refineries, said Joshua Yuan, AgriLife Research scientist, professor and chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable Products in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology. These “plug-in” technologies allow for optimization of sustainable, cost-effective lignin — the key component of bioplastics used in food packaging and other everyday items.
The $2.4 million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office. The research has recently been published in Nature Communications.
Yuan and researchers are submitting next-phase requests for additional project funding.
Efficient extraction and use of lignin is a major challenge for biofuel refineries, Yuan said.
“Our process takes five conventional pretreatment technologies and modifies them to produce biofuel and plastics together at a lower cost.”
Yuan’s research builds on previous work investigating enhanced extraction methods for lignin.
The new method, named “plug-in preconditioning processes of lignin,” or PIPOL, can be directly added into current biorefineries and is not cost prohibitive, Yuan said. PIPOL is designed to integrate dissolving, conditioning and fermenting lignin, turning it into energy and making it easily adaptable to biorefinery designs.