Bioplastics – plastics made from biological substances rather than petroleum – can be created in a more economical and environmentally friendly way, according to a new study from Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
The new approach involves a “plug-in” preconditioning process, a simple adjustment for biofuel refineries, said Joshua Yuan, scientist with AgriLife Research, and a professor and chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable Products in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The plug-in technologies allow for optimization of sustainable, cost-effective lignin – the key component of bioplastics used in food packaging and other items.
Efficient extraction and use of lignin is a major challenge for biofuel refineries. But Yuan and his team modified five conventional pretreatment technologies to produce biofuel and plastics together at reduced cost. The research builds on Yuan’s previous work investigating enhanced extraction methods for lignin.
The new method, named “plug-in preconditioning processes of lignin,” is designed to integrate dissolving, conditioning and fermenting lignin, turning it into energy and making it adaptable to biorefinery designs.
The bioeconomy and biomanufacturing sectors are a federal priority as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy points to bioeconomy infrastructure, innovation, products, technology and data to enhance U.S. economic growth, Yuan said. The bioeconomy supports about 285,000 jobs and generates $48 billion in annual revenue.
“Innovation is the key to achieving growth and more widespread use of biodegradable plastics,” Yuan said. “Lignocellulosic biorefinery commercialization is hindered by limited value-added products from biomass, lack of lignin utilization for fungible products, and overall low-value output with ethanol as primary products.”
His recent discovery could make significant strides to overcome some of the challenges, he said. He added that it’s important to replace petroleum-based plastics with biodegradable plastics. His work provides a path to produce bioplastics from corn stover, grasses and wood.
“We’ve shown that bioplastics from lignocellulosic biorefineries can be more economically beneficial,” he said. “That opens new avenues to use agricultural waste to produce biodegradable plastics.”
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 recently was published in “Nature Communications.” Visit nature.com and search for “plug-in processes of lignin” for more information.