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Wednesday, 29 April 2015 10:51

Major £3m UK project to industrialise plastics from plant waste

Biome Bioplastics is leading a major UK development programme to produce industrial-scale chemicals from plant waste. The aim is to accelerate the bioplastic market and create a practical biorefinery approach for the transformation of plant and agricultural waste.

bioplastics1The £3m, three year programme is backed by Innovate UK and involves the English Universities of Warwick, Liverpool and Leeds and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) on Teesside.

The project has the potential to significantly accelerate the global bioplastics market with the production of novel target materials, including a fully bio-based polyester. The work programme has also received support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), among others.

The consortium's aim is to harness 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. The availability of these chemicals could revolutionise the bioplastics market. For the first time, it would allow natural polymers to truly compete with oil-based polymers on both cost and functionality. The work could also contribute to a sustainable UK chemicals industry, with broader commercial applications including fragrances, coatings and personal care products.

Biome Bioplastics CEO, Paul Mines, comments: "The ready availability of high value, sustainable chemicals from natural sources will be a game changer for the bioplastics market. Success in this work would allow us to competitively challenge the dominance of oil-based polymers. 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."

Scientists have been trying to valorise lignin for more than 30 years. Last year, Biome Bioplastics and the University of Warwick's Centre for Industrial Biotechnology and Biorefining successfully demonstrated that bacterial degradation can be used to produce organic chemicals from lignin that are suitable for bioplastic manufacture. In groundbreaking research, the team proved that soil bacteria can be used to manipulate the breakdown pathway and that the process can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology.

bioplastics3Biome Bioplastics' extensive development programme 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.

"Working from bench scale to 10,000 L, our open innovation model enables clients to develop and demonstrate the next generation of products and processes. We are delighted to be working with Biome Bioplastics on this project and hope that together we can successfully scale up the technology to demonstrate commercial viability," explains Steve Pearson, Business and Strategy Manager at CPI.

In addition to converting lignin feedstocks, Biome Bioplastics will also 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.

Industrial biotechnology is recognised by UK government as a promising means of developing low carbon products and processes. The technology that Biome Bioplastics is developing has the potential to unlock a practical biorefinery approach to transforming the millions of tonnes of lignin feedstock that is produced every year into sustainable, high value chemicals.

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Innovate UK