A new process can convert a wide variety of vegetable and animal fats and oils — ranging from lard to waste cooking oil — into a key ingredient for making plastics that currently comes from petroleum, scientists say.
In their report, published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, Douglas Neckers and Maria Muro-Small say that many of the plastics found in hundreds of everyday products begin with a group of chemical raw materials called olefins that come from petroleum. They include ethylene, propylene and butadiene, which are building blocks for familiar plastics like polyethylene, polyester, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene. The scientists sought a more sustainable alternative source of olefins.
Their report describes use of “UV-C” light — used in sanitizing wands to kill bacteria and viruses around the house — to change lard, tallow, olive oil, canola oil and waste canola cooking oil into olefins.
Neckers and Muro-Small say that this is the first report on use of this photochemical process to make olefins. Additional experiments are in progress, the authors say.
University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers in June discovered a new chemical process to make p-xylene, an important ingredient of common plastics, at 90 percent yield from lignocellulosic biomass, the highest yield achieved to date. Xylene chemicals are used to produce PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used in many products including soda bottles, food packaging, synthetic fibers for clothing and automotive parts.
Meanwhile Tom’s of Maine is exploring ways to use waste potatoes — produced locally in Maine — as packaging for its products. The company is working with researchers at the University of Maine and the Sustainable BioPlastics Council of Maine to developpolylactic acid (PLA) packaging with potatoes that can not be sold for consumption.
Many other companies have incorporated PLA plant-based plastics into their packaging, but most tend to be made from corn. Brands like If You Care do sell bags made from potato starch-based plastics — manufactured in France and marketed in the US – but the use of potato-based plastics is not very typical in the US.
Photo Credit: Cottonseed Oil via Flickr