The Cidetec-IK4 technological centre in Spain is leading a three-year European project (from 2012 to 2014) called ECLIPSE, aimed at developing cleaner and more sustainable alternative to petroleum-derived plastics.
The project is a co-operative venture between research bodies, universities and companies (including Proctor & Gamble) from Germany, Belgium, Spain and Latin America.
Ibon Odriozola, head of the Nanotechnology Unit at Cidetec-IK4, was unable to disclose funding levels for the project, but told FoodProductionDaily.com that it had both environmental and economic bases.
Race for oil alternatives
On the environmental side, waste-based plastics could decrease dependence on food crop or petroleum-based plastics, Cidetec said. It added that the latter comprised the “immense majority” of current plastics on the market, despite potential future oil shortages.
Odriozola said: “ECLIPSE [also] has an economic objective, as this project aims to increase the competiveness of European countries in the biopolymers’ market, without increasing the price of basic foods.”
Although Europe leads the world in terms of biopolymer consumption, the main producers are US based and use maize as a raw material, and Cidetec said this affected the availability of crops for food production.
Plastics made using polyactic acid (PLA) from organic materials such as maize or sugar beer were an increasingly popular alternative to petroleum-based products, Cidetec noted.
But it cited a 2010 EU report on indirect land-use change relating to biofuels and bioliquids, showing that increasing amounts of agricultural land was being used to grow crops for this purpose.
Cidetec said: “This phenomenon increases the price of basic food products such as maize and wheat, and increases pressure to allocate ever more land to agriculture to this end, with devastating consequences for consumers and small producers in developing countries.”
Instead, the ECLIPSE project aims to develop plastics using waste organic materials such as banana leaves, crustaceans and almond nut shells, to avoid upward impact on food prices and environmental pressures.
Working towards prototype
In basic terms, the procedure that ECLIPSE will research involves processing glucides (compounds derived from carbon and water) from biodiesel waste to obtain lactic acid, polymerising this to get PLA, then adding organic waste nanofibers to achieve “greater resistance to external agents and enhanced mechanical properties”.
Odriozola said: “In this project, the aim was to use nanofibers coming from banana waste, almond shells, crustaceans – which are now wasted, and we don’t know what to do with them – to add this to PLA to reinforce it instead of using glass or other materials.”
Asked whether Cidetec had already developed prototype waste-based plastics, he added: “We haven’t worked with waste so far, but we have partners in the consortium that have worked with polymers coming from bio-sources, but I’m not quite sure if they were using waste or just crops.”
Quizzed about when such products could hit supermarket shelves, Odriozola said: “It’s very early to say, but if the project if goes well and the manufacture is not difficult, we expect to have a material prototype with good properties in three years.”
Thereafter, the technology could be quite easily applied to the sphere of industrial plastics, Odriozola said.
Proctor & Gamble (P&G), for instance, could be useful in terms of commercialising technology if research outcomes were successful, he added.