The new plastic is made from plant oils and has remarkable properties, such as being tougher and more durable than petroleum-based polyethylenes. Additionally, the bioplastic can be placed in a simple container where it is safely broken down to liquid fuel, ready for use in cars. The concept thus shortcuts a costly waste-management process and simplifies fuel logistics. The innovation clearly illustrates the cyclical nature of the bioeconomy: the 'waste'-stream of one bioproduct becomes the feedstock for another bioproduct. In such a circular, cradle-to-cradle concept, there is no real 'waste'.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the researchers US$2.34 million to advance this innovative technology. The military is very interested because, when on campaign, army units produce vast waste-streams that are not treated and pollute the environment, whereas fuel logistics are often problematic. With the new plastic, both problems are solved at once.
The commercialization of the technology will also lead to a new source of green energy for households worldwide.
Professor Richard Gross, director of Polytechnic University's National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing of Macromolecules (CBBM) developed the new bioplastic using vegetable oils. He also partnered with DNA 2.0, a biotechnology company specializing in gene synthesis, to develop enzymes that can both synthesize and break the fuel-latent plastic down into biodiesel after its use:
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"Polytechnic University has a long history of innovation, and we are confident Professor Gross' research will revolutionize how we produce and consume biofuels," noted Jerry M. Hultin, president of Polytechnic University. "Gassing up at the pump could be part of the past thanks to the possibility of this research."
The process of converting biogengineered fuel-latent plastics into biodiesel is of interest to DARPA since the U.S. military can use this technology on the frontline.
"Military units generate substantial quantities of packaging waste when engaging in stationary field operations. If we can turn this waste into fuel, we will see a double benefit - we will reduce the amount of waste that we have to remove, and we will reduce the amount of new fuel that we must deliver to the units," explained Khine Latt, program manager for DARPA's Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery program.
The next phase of the research will entail developing a more efficient low-cost process for both manufacturing the bioplastic and converting it into biodiesel. The personal generation of biodiesel is an important step in developing green technologies and reducing waste.
Bioplastics are most often associated with sugar and starchy feedtocks, from which polylactic acid is obtained, the building block for a particular kind of biodegradable plastic (earlier post). But more and more, plant oils are being used as well (an example).