HOUSTON, TX — A new study by a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist is looking into the use of bioplastics, biodegradable plastics that can be created in a more economical and environmentally friendly way from the byproducts of corn stubble, grasses and mesquite agricultural production.
The new approach will only require a simple adjustment for biofuel refineries that involves a “plug-in” preconditioning process, according to Joshua Yuan, AgriLife Research scientist, professor and chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable Products in the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology.
These “plug-in” technologies allow for optimization of sustainable, cost-effective lignin—the key component of bioplastics used in food packaging and other everyday items.
The $2.4 million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office. The research has recently been published in Nature Communications.
“Our process takes five conventional pretreatment technologies and modifies them to produce biofuel and plastics together at a lower cost,” Yuan said.
Yuan and researchers are submitting next-phase requests for additional project funding. Efficient extraction and use of lignin is a major challenge for biofuel refineries, and Yuan’s research builds on previous work investigating enhanced extraction methods for lignin.
“Innovation is the key to achieving growth and a more widespread use of biodegradable plastics. Lignocellulosic biorefinery commercialization is hindered by limited value-added products from biomass, lack of lignin utilization for fungible products and overall low-value output with ethanol as primary products,” he said. “This recent discovery will make significant strides to overcome some of these challenges.”
Yuan also touted the research for its environmentally friendly aspects.
“We are producing over 300 million tons of plastics each year,” he said. “It’s critical to replace those with biodegradable plastics. This work provides a path to produce bioplastics from common agriculture waste like [that from production of] corn and other grasses and wood. We think this research is very industrially relevant and could only help enable the biorefinery and polymer industries to [attain] greater efficiencies and economic opportunity.”
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