A research team at the University of Rennes in Brittany has identified the ingredient that makes it possible to use plant oil, instead of fossil fuel-based oil, to produce polyamide precursors. The material that enables this type of chemical reaction is ruthenium, a metal. Polyamides are polymers used in a variety of applications, ranging from fibers such as nylon to highly resistant coatings that protect metal from corrosion.
In the study, researchers selected two streams of renewable materials: fatty acids derived from castor oil, and acrylonitrile, which is a compound that can be easily derived from glycerol, a waste product created in the production of biodiesel. Castor oil is derived from castor beans, which are not a food crop. The team combined the fatty acids and the nitrile component of the acrylonitrile with an additive containing ruthenium.
A research team has discovered that an additive containing the metal ruthenium reacts with renewable biomaterials to form new polyamide precursors. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
This process created the precursors to both existing and entirely new types of polyamides in a highly efficient reaction, making a large volume of material relative to the amount of energy invested. The specific reaction is difficult to achieve in the laboratory because the ruthenium additive tends to be sacrificed when it contacts acrylonitrile. The research team initially examined and reviewed several different reaction conditions, as well as additives to discover the optimum method that could provide high yields.
Meanwhile, over in the commercial sector, Cereplast, a manufacturer of compostable and sustainable bio-based plastics, has introduced the next generation of its durable hybrid resins. The Hybrid 102D and 105D grades represent an expansion of the company's Biopropylene polypropylene-based resin products, which are part of its Sustainable Resins product lines. Cereplast anticipates selling the new 102D and 105D resin grades in the US and Europe in the first half of 2012.
The company's Hybrid Resins products replace up to half of the petroleum content in traditional plastic products with bio-based materials, such as starches from renewable plant materials. (You can watch a slideshow illustrating the life cycle of Cereplast's bioplastics here.) They can be used in durable goods, including interior automotive parts, furniture, and consumer products. All Hybrid grades are FDA-compliant for direct food contact. The Hybrid 102D and Hybrid 105D grades are both designed for use in injection molding.
I think it's a combination of things, Ann. Certainly greenwashing has to be a factor. Everybody loves to hate the oil companies. I'm sure they're well aware of their image problem. Another factor, I would think, is to be a leader when alternative fuels begin to take a bite out of fossil fuels (even if that does take forever).
Another factor I've seen is that young managers and executives have grown up in a world with Earth Day. I've seen this at a number of large corporations (like TI) that have sustainability groups. There are people in these corporations who sincerely want to edge their employers toward the green side.
I agree, Jerry. And we'd better stop destroying biomass stupidly if it's going to be in such demand for smarter uses.
The Freedonia Group analyst I interviewed for my upcoming bioplastics March feature said that by volume, bioplastics now represent 1/1000 of the entire plastics market and might become 1/100 of that volume in 10 years. Interestingly, the first bioplastic was developed in 1947, and began replacing steel and rubber in cars in the 1960s. It's made of castor bean oil.
When I first heard that I just assumed it was greenwashing/corporate image PR. I still do, to some extent--the rest I'd guess, like you, is hedging their bets. I'm much more likely to believe that a small, new, earnest company like Ecovative, the mushroom packaging guys, or Be Green, the pulp clamshell guys, might be on the level and not greenwashing since they've got nothing to lose in doing so, than I am to believe that big oil companies are on the level, since they have so much to lose. OTOH, the big oil companies will have a lot more to lose if they don't get their alternative fuel act in gear. OTOOH, it's not like they haven't known for a few decades that dyno-fuels will run out one of these days.
Yes, it's always interesting to see where the funding comes from. I was surprised a few years ago to find out that oil companies were investing in research on crops that could best be used to create biofuel. I guess they're hedging their bets.
Good question, Rob. I've been trying to discover the source of the funding in each case, which is not always possible. With larger companies it's often internal. With smaller companies it's often funding by government or larger companies as partners. In the case of the universities, it can be multiple, and I've noticed research is often being conducted in partnership between the university team and either a company or a consortium. Regardless of who's doing the research, the Europeans and Asians seem to be more likely to have government funding.
Nice story, Ann. What a wide range of developments you've been covering in materials. In general, what is funding this? I would imagine with P&G, it's just a matter of designing with different existing materials. But with these new materials, it would take considerable dollars. Is the funding coming from government or industry? Both?
Beth, I don't think we're at a tipping point yet in bioplastics, in the sense that they're collectively about to take over the world of plastics in all areas. Far from it, as I learned in the reporting for my upcoming March feature on the subject (but they are beginning to make a dent). What I do think we're seeing is a wide-ranging search for sustainable materials and processes. There's a ton of research going on, in the best of the invention tradition: "what would happen if we...what would happen if it were possible to..." Some of it will stick, some of it won't. Meanwhile, we're developing tools for judging the worthiness of such efforts, such as life cycle analysis (LCA) and certification programs, such as those mentioned in the P&G wood pulp clamshell story:
Ann, seems like you've been writing about a variety of efforts--both research and commercial--that are really advancing the use of plants and metals in the production of bioplastics and other key materials. Very interesting stuff, and obviously, this is an area of focus for companies looking for alternative and more sustainable materials options. My question is have we arrived at some sort of tipping point driving what appears to be a multitude of efforts?
New versions of BASF's Ecovio line are both compostable and designed for either injection molding or thermoforming. These combinations are becoming more common for the single-use bioplastics used in food service and food packaging applications, but are still not widely available.
The 100-percent solar-powered Solar Impulse plane flies on a piloted, cross-country flight this summer over the US as a prelude to the longer, round-the-world flight by its successor aircraft planned for 2015.
GE Aviation expects to chop off about 25 percent of the total 3D printing time of metallic production components for its LEAP Turbofan engine, using in-process inspection. That's pretty amazing, considering how slow additive manufacturing (AM) build times usually are.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.