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Researchers at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) are turning by-products of wood and wool into biodegradable packaging, in a process that could help slash global plastic consumption.
Each year the world consumes more than 100 million tons of plastics, says polymers expert Dr Nishar Hameed.
Dr Hameed and his colleagues are using cellulose from wood pulp as well as wool, silk, and nano-composites from bone material to produce biodegradable materials for potential application in packaging and clothing.
“Natural polymers are a renewable resource compared to synthetic plastics which are derived from finite fossil fuel reserves. They are also often biodegradable - which helps their eventual disposal,” Dr Hameed explains.
The researchers are using wood pulp cellulose, wool and silk fibres dissolved in liquefied salt to form solid materials such as films and fibres.
A 10:1 ratio of organic material is dissolved at 100 degrees Celsius. The dissolved polymers are regenerated into films, composites and fibres by coagulating in a water bath. The films are made into thin sheets of desirable thickness suitable for durable packaging, using glass plates.
The biodegradable films resemble plastic - their opacity and strength varies depending on the composition of the organic ingredients.
“The key to producing useful biodegradable, multicomponent materials is environmentally friendly processing from completely renewable resources,” explains Dr Hameed.
He says that other solvents have proven to be more toxic and can’t be recycled.
The research team aims to develop a base stock from abundant natural materials, such as wool and cellulose.
Dr Hameed believes that cellulose based blends and composites could also have potential application in the biomedical, electronics, automotive, aerospace and photonics sectors and spawn a self-sustaining, green polymer industry.”
The research is being carried out in collaboration with CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Monash University, the University of Queensland, Rice University (Texas) and the University of Cambridge.