Researchers from the University of Maryland have created a
from wood byproducts that they hope can solve the issue of plastic pollution around the world.
Durable and Sustainable Bioplastics
The research team, led by YSE professor Yuan Yao and Liangbing Hu, has made a breakthrough, using wood byproducts, that shows promise for producing more durable and sustainable bioplastics.
The study outlines the process of deconstructing the porous matrix of natural wood into a slurry. The researchers say the resulting material shows a high mechanical strength, stability when holding liquids, and UV-light resistance. It can also be recycled or safely biodegraded in the natural environment and has a lower life-cycle environmental impact when compared with petroleum-based plastics and other biodegradable plastics.
“There are many people who have tried to develop these kinds of polymers in plastic, but the mechanical strands are not good enough to replace the plastics we currently use, which are made mostly from fossil fuels
,” says Yao. “We’ve developed a straightforward and simple manufacturing process that generates biomass-based plastics from wood, but also plastic that delivers good mechanical properties as well.”
Residue Waste Powder from Lumber Mills
To create the slurry mixture, the researchers used a wood powder — a processing residue usually discarded as waste in lumber mills — and deconstructed the loose, porous structure of the powder with a biodegradable and recyclable deep eutectic solvent (DES). The resulting mixture, which features nanoscale entanglement and hydrogen bonding between the regenerated lignin and cellulose micro/nanofibrils, has a high solid content and high viscosity, which can be casted and rolled without breaking.
“We’ve developed a straightforward and simple manufacturing process that generates biomass-based plastics from wood, but also plastic that delivers good mechanical properties as well
,” says Yao.
Comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment Test
Yao then led a comprehensive life cycle assessment to test the environmental impacts of the bioplastic against commons plastics. Sheets of the bioplastic were buried in soil, fracturing after two weeks and completely degrading after three months; additionally, researchers say the bioplastic can be broken back down into the slurry by mechanical stirring, which also allows for the DES to be recovered and reused.
“That, to me, is what really makes this plastic good: It can all be recycled or biodegraded
,” says Yao. “We’ve minimized all of the materials and the waste going into nature
The bioplastic has numerous applications, says Hu, a professor at the Center for Materials Innovation at the University of Maryland and co-author of the paper. It can be molded into a film that can be used in plastic bags and packaging — one of the major uses of plastic and causes of waste production. As the bioplastic can be molded into different shapes, it has potential for use in automobile manufacturing, as well.
Investigating Potential Impact on Forests
One area the research team continues to investigate is the potential impact on forests if the manufacturing of this bioplastic is scaled up. While the process currently uses wood byproducts in manufacturing, the researchers say they are keenly aware that large-scale production could require usage of massive amounts of wood, which could have far-reaching implications on forests, land management, ecosystems and climate change, to name a few.
Yao says the research team has already begun working with a forest ecologist to create forest simulation models, linking the growth cycle of forests with the manufacturing process. Yao also sees an opportunity to collaborate with people who work in forest-related fields at YSE — an uncommon convenience.
“It’s not often an engineer can walk down the hall and talk to a forester
,” says Yao.