Sustainable without petroleum: Plastics as a crop
Fighting climate change on all fronts: both Kaiserslautern University of Applied Sciences and Aalen University of Applied Sciences, in cooperation with Ellwanger EurA AG, are currently dedicated to developing bio-based materials to replace petroleum-based polymers.5 Sep 2022
"If action is not taken quickly in all areas, global climate change can no longer be stopped. Plastics technology in particular can contribute to massive CO2 reductions with new, bio-based materials and innovative processing technologies," predicts Prof. Dr. Helmut Maurer, Director General Environment of the European Commission. Wake-up calls like this one from Prof. Maurer are ringing out at us ever more frequently and ever louder. So it's good to know that in the area mentioned above - as in more and more climate-relevant areas - research and work is being done on sustainable solutions. This includes two projects that are currently addressing the topic of "biobased plastics".
Partners sought for new innovation network MaBiPro
The players in the first project are based in Swabia, a region known less for fine High German than for great innovative strength. Aalen University of Applied Sciences and the neighboring innovation consultancy EurA AG in Ellwangen are jointly tackling the task of producing plastic products sustainably in the future. To this end, a nationwide innovation network called "MaBiPro - Marketable Bioplastics and Products" is to be launched this year, for which additional partners from industry and science suitable for the project are currently being sought. In addition, funding from the new German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) is to be applied for to implement cooperation projects between the university and industrial partners, as well as for network coordination.
Ecologically and economically attractive
The actual goal of the technology network is not only to make plastics and their applications more environmentally friendly and sustainable, but also to make them more economically attractive - as part of a "plastic (waste) reduction strategy." The potential applications and uses of biobased or at least biodegradable plastics, including their recyclates, are thus to become significantly more diverse and more attractive in terms of price.
Reproducible and standardizable
"In the future, plastics technology should think in terms of raw material cycles," therefore demands Prof. Dr. Walcher, Dean of the Plastics Technology program in the Faculty of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Aalen University since 2014, and adds a proposed solution: "Our linear thinking in product development from cradle to grave must be changed. Products must become raw materials for new products. Our planet has enough energy, supplied by the sun. However, the material base is limited. Compostable biopolymers should circulate in a biosphere and become new nutrients for plants. Fossil-based plastics should circulate in a technosphere in a separate cycle and be raw materials for new fossil products. Polymeric materials are too valuable to be landfilled or incinerated after use. All material development and production processes should then be directed toward these targeted products and their reuse." But increasing the acceptance of bioplastics and recyclates will only succeed, he said, "if it can be ensured that the materials, processes and manufacturing methods become reproducible and standardizable. That's because the technical properties of such new materials are often insufficiently known to date."
Support urgently requested
Network manager Marie Wasiak sees injection molders, plastics processors, toolmakers, plastics producers, service providers and research institutes as the current contacts and also the target group for the future achievements of MaBiPro. "These technology areas are intended to contribute to the development of interdisciplinary solutions by coupling competencies in the areas of measuring systems, materials and material development, machine and plant technology. We welcome further innovative ideas and research topics as well as additional network partners."
Something new in the West?
In addition to Aalen University and its colleagues, there is another teaching and research institute dedicated to the topic of biobased plastics. Almost 150 kilometers to the west of the Swabian Alb, in the Palatinate region of Germany, or more precisely in Pirmasens, they are already one step ahead. A major EU research project has just been launched there - in other words, the funding has already been approved. Nearly one million euros are allocated to Kaiserslautern University of Applied Sciences, the "host" of the Pirmasens branch. A total of 13 partners from six countries are swimming in the European research pool. The desired goal sounds familiar: Prof. Dr. Gregor Grun and his team want to use their research to make polymer materials more sustainable and thus reduce their carbon footprint. The name of the project "Waste2BioComp" is also derived from this objective: "Waste, for example agricultural residues or residues from chemical recycling, are to be converted into biobased materials (to Bio). In this context, composites (Comp) are understood as materials built on the biobased polymers and additional additives," said Prof. Grun.
"Acquired" elastomeric properties
But it's not just in terms of funding that the Palatines seem to be a small step ahead of their Swabian colleagues; at least the more concrete statements about the "how" of implementation suggest as much. According to their own statements, the researchers in Pirmasens - in addition to Prof. Grun, they are Prof. Dr. Sergiy Grishchuk, Prof. Dr. Jörg Sebastian and Dr. Michael Lakatos - are working on the chemical and biotechnological synthesis of biobased and biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). As every committed climate saver should know, these are naturally occurring water-insoluble biodegradable biopolyesters, which are formed by many bacteria as reserve materials for carbon and energy. The aforementioned synthesis steps are intended to "impart" elastomeric properties to the originally crystalline plastics so that they can also be used for flexible products such as shoe soles, surgical masks or packaging. In order not to develop in the wrong direction, not only all newly produced materials, but also the products based on them and the manufacturing technologies developed for them, right through to recycling, are assessed with sustainability analyses and, if necessary, their environmental compatibility is optimized.
And what do you do with them?
In particular, the accompanying development of special manufacturing processes shows the areas into which the conversion to biobased plastics intends to penetrate. There is talk of inkjet printers that print textiles and leather with new bio-based inks. Electrospinning will be used to create ultra-fine biodegradable fibers from PHA, and chemical foaming processes based on harmless blowing agents will allow shoe soles to be created. "All processes," Grun says, "are more or less uncharted territory."
New conditions improve marketing opportunities
Biopolymers are still fundamentally more expensive than petroleum products, but the plastics market is changing. While it used to be strongly price-driven due to favorable raw material prices and standardized production in mostly low-wage countries, conditions are currently changing. Above all, the problem of plastic waste, which is becoming an ever more pressing issue in the collective consciousness, is creating social and political pressure. Added to this is the climate impact, which can no longer be ignored. Currently, biobased plastics account for less than one percent of global production, but this alone shows the enormous potential for this market segment under increasingly favorable conditions. For example, the planned increase in the recycling rate for plastics in Germany from the current 46.4 percent to over 60 percent alone provides good arguments for establishing sustainable alternatives to conventional petroleum-based products.
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