The £3m three-year programme is led by Biome Bioplastics with support from Innovate UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), among others.
Centre for Process Innovation
The work will involve several parallel projects in partnership with the Universities of Warwick, Liverpool and Leeds and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Teesside.
Paul Mines, CEO, Biome Bioplastics, said the availability of sustainable chemicals from natural sources will be a game changer for the bioplastics market.
“Success in this work would allow us to competitively challenge oil-based polymers,” he added.
“The technology we are developing is part of the growing adoption of bio-based processes that is likely to deliver radical changes across the materials industry”.
The consortium plans to use industrial biotechnology techniques to produce bio-based chemicals from lignin at a scale suitable for industrial testing.
Lignin is an abundant waste product of the pulp and paper industry. For the first time, it would allow natural polymers to compete with oil-based polymers on both cost and functionality.
'Scientists have been trying to extract chemicals from lignin for more than 30 years'
The work could also contribute to a sustainable UK chemicals industry, with broader commercial applications including fragrances, coatings and personal care products.
Last year, Biome Bioplastics and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Industrial Biotechnology and Biorefining showed bacterial degradation can be used to produce organic chemicals from lignin suitable for bioplastic manufacture.
The team proved soil bacteria can be used to manipulate the breakdown pathway and the process can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology.
“Scientists have been trying to extract chemicals from lignin for more than 30 years,” said Prof Tim Bugg, director, Warwick Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining.
“Previously, chemical methods have been used but these produce a very complex mixture of hundreds of different products in very small amounts.
“By using bacteria found in soil we can manipulate the lignin degradation pathway to control the chemicals produced. This is groundbreaking work.”
Larger trials at CPI
Biome Bioplastics will build on this proven science by increasing yields and scaling up the technology to demonstrate commercial viability and the potential for industrial volumes of production.
Larger trials will be undertaken at CPI and demonstration quantities of chemicals will be converted into novel materials for evaluation among Biome Bioplastics’ existing customers.
In addition to converting lignin feedstocks, Biome Bioplastics will be leading a one-year feasibility study with the University of Liverpool into the possibility of extracting similar organic chemicals from the cellulose portion of lignocellulose.
This work is expected to broaden the possible raw materials that can be used in the manufacture of bioplastics to include waste streams such as agriculture. If successful, this work will be integrated into the ongoing development work towards industrial scale products.