Scientists Discover How to Grow Plastic on Trees

by , 05/27/09

plastic that grows on trees, plastic alternatives, alternatives to plastics, plastics are made from oil, pacific northwest national laboratory

We tend not to acknowledge it, but our dependence on oil is not limited to the consumption of fossil fuels for energy and transportation. Finding an alternative to plastic (which is also made from oil), is proving to be one of the most difficult problems we face today. Recently scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have announced a groundbreaking development that provides a simple solution to the problem, transforming plant cellulose into plastic in one single step.

plastic that grows on trees, plastic alternatives, alternatives to plastics, plastics are made from oil, pacific northwest national laboratory

The vast majority of products these days are either made of – or packaged in – plastic, so finding an alternative substance that may be manufactured from a non-polluting, inexpensive resource is of paramount importance. As mentioned in the June 15th issue of the journal Science, researchers at PNNL have been able to convert glucose found in plant cellulose into 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a basic building block for fuel, polyesters, and other petroleum-based chemicals. The main problem in creating this building block is that it is quite expensive to do, and the process yield are quite low. Furthermore, the final HMF product is laced with impurities, making it difficult to use.

Previous attempts at synthesizing HMF started with simple sugars, however researchers at PNNL have now found a way to turn plant cellulose into the building block in one single step. Thanks to clever tinkering, the team was able to extract HMF from plants by using a mixture of copper chloride and chromium chloride to break down the cellulose without creating unwanted byproducts. The chlorides didn’t degrade, which meant that the process could be repeated using the same chemicals, reducing the cost of creating HMF while yielding a product with fewer impurities.

While still a ways off from commercial applications, the process shows promise in creating an alternative to plastics. The next steps involve fine-tuning the process to increase the yields while further reducing the cost of production.

+ Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Via Science Daily

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  1. Seph June 16, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    We need to stop the focus on trees. Hemp plastic is def where it is at. It is a fast growing renewable resource and it will also provide paper products that can be recycled more often than paper made from trees.

  2. Sryn September 17, 2009 at 1:01 am
  3. beav May 28, 2009 at 9:56 am

    despite the clamor about bisphenol, i thought it was GRAS. could you provide links to these claims? the only reason that i’d like to see bisphenol under control is its ubiquity, with limited known ways for degradation to occur.

    and with regard to hemp, you couldn’t smoke enough to make a dent in industrial consumption (were it encouraged). that story sounds apocryphal.

  4. FilipeFreitas May 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Where’s that picture from?

  5. masterwyn May 27, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    This is not new. Methods for producing plastic from hemp cellulose have been around for 100 years. In fact, Henry Ford used hemp based plastics in the first Model T vehicles. This is why certain industrial giants banded together to demonize smoked hemp in order make it illegal and remove the competition.

  6. masterwyn May 27, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Hemp based plastics where first used a hundred years ago by Henry Ford in his Model T cars. This, among several other industrial usages, is what lead to the campaign to demonized smoked hemp in order for various petrol interests to corner the market on plastics.

  7. elizahleigh May 27, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I always thought that corn-based plastics were a huge step for the environment and then I saw this video and realized what a tremendously negative impact the corn industry really has on our entire ecosystem:

    Of course, we all know by now that conventional plastics are up to no good. The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study recently had volunteers drink from plastic bottles for one week straight and their urine tests showed bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations up 69 percent. They were that high, even though no hot liquids were consumed from the bottles, nor were the bottles heated. (Bear in mind that leaching of BPA is predicted to be even higher when heat is present.) BPA has already been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and is now thought to be a factor in breast cancer, compromised reproductive health, and responsible for multiple developmental issues in infants and children.

    Soooo, plant-based plastics are presumably a far better option…I just hope that scientists figure out how to do it with weeds!!

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