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Plastics from biomass: promising new research from the Netherlands

20 March 2012

It is now possible to produce plastics without the use of petroleum, thanks to a new type of catalyst enabling efficient conversion to key components of various products including plastics, medicines and paint. The catalyst, which consists of tiny iron spheres, was developed by chemists at University Utrecht.  According to Prof Krijn de Jong, the products are exactly the same, only they are made of pruning waste instead of petroleum.

The catalyst viewed through an electron microscope. The tiny iron spheres (dark areas) measure only about 20 nanometres in diameter
The catalyst viewed through an electron microscope. The tiny iron spheres (dark areas) measure only about 20 nanometres in diameter

Almost all chemical products, ranging from anti-freeze and pharmaceuticals to plastics and paint, are currently made of petroleum. However, the technology enabling the fabrication of products of the same quality largely from biomass has existed for some time. “Until recently, there were too many steps involved in the process, so the technology was not efficient or economical enough to be used on a large scale,” says Professor De Jong. 

New type of bioplastic
It is now possible to produce components that can be used to make plastics and other substances by means of a one-step process, once the biomass has been converted at a high temperature into gas. The new catalyst was developed by Utrecht chemists in cooperation with Dow Benelux and Delft University of Technology. According to De Jong, “The industry will be able to utilise this technology to make bioplastics, biopaints and even biopharmaceuticals. The properties of these products are the same, despite the fact that the raw material was biomass instead of petroleum: the bioplastics are totally identical to regular plastics.”

Tiny iron spheres
The petroleum-free products are made using a recently developed catalyst consisting of iron nanoparticles measuring 0.00002 millimetres. The tiny particles were produced and stabilised by Utrecht PhD student Hirsa Torres, by affixing them to a special material, thereby making the catalyst more durable, and an efficient means for converting biogas into useful substances.

Interesting technology for industry
The Utrecht researchers will continue to develop the catalyst with the help of Dow Benelux. Hopefully, the first products made with this technology will be launched within the next few years. “In light of the imminent oil shortage, using sustainable raw materials is an extremely attractive option for industry,” says De Jong. “One major advantage of the method is that the raw materials are sustainable, but do not compete with the food supply, because they consist of wood-like biomass, such as branches, plant stalks and pruning waste.”

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