6 September 2005

Cars could very well grow on trees

Henry Ford is supposed to have quipped in the 1940’s that he wanted to be able to manufacture automobiles in the same way you grew crops — in the soil.

This idea was rather far-fetched, especially as automobiles are made from steel, rubber and plastic. But jump ahead some sixty years to 2005 and Henry Ford’s prediction may be starting to come true.

Dr. Mohini Sain, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry and with the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, has been developing biocomposites from plant fibres found, for example, in soy, corn and hemp. The idea is these biocomposites could in the future be used to replace traditional plastics in everything from automobile bumpers to plastic bottles, even medical products and high-performance materials used for building aircraft.

Biocomposites are made by chemically treating a material like hemp so the fibres separate. These fibres are then combined with synthetic plastics to create bioplastic composites.

Sain said much of his and his colleagues research is driven not just by the natural curiosity of scientists, but by economics.

“If you look at the history of petrochemicals and our dependency on them, we are now finding there is only so much of the stuff and it cannot be renewed,” Sain explained. “So the question becomes: ‘How long we are going to survive with this kind of consumable material, which has a limited supply, especially in a world where the demand for this material is every increasing?’ Not just in North America, but demand for plastic materials is increasing in China and India, and the question becomes: ‘How do we sustain that supply to meet that growing demand?'”

At the same time, the ever-increasing price of oil, which is the basis for the petrochemical and plastic industry, is causing enormous cost pressures for everyone. As oil prices approach nearly US$70 per barrel with no sign of stopping, plastics processors are looking for alternatives to plastics or for ways to reduce the amount of petrochemical-based plastics used in products.

Right now, Sain’s research focuses on improving the way the biological materials are broken down and for converting the chemical makeup of the organic materials into something similar to the petrochemicals used in plastics manufacturing.

“In the petrochemical industry, you characterize the crude and then you take that information and find ways of converting to crude into a product,” Sain said. “This is no different with a biomaterial. Let’s say you take a tree. What you first do is look at its chemical composition and structural composition. It’s the same with soy, corn or even potatoes. You then take that information and find ways to map it to what is found in the chemical composition used in crude products for plastics.”

Sain added while the research is still very new, he does not expect it to take long for researchers to find ways of speeding the process of mapping the chemical composition of biological materials to match petrochemicals. He said scientists have the benefit of over 100 years of research on petrochemicals and plastics to draw upon. This information is helping guide researchers and is already opening up profitable pathways for bringing bioplastics to the market very soon.

“We are right now at the point where the petrochemical industry was some 70 years ago,” Sain added. “There were challenges in the petrochemical industry and there are similar challenges here. But we have learned a lot about how to refine products and the mechanical engineering and processes needed to make plastics.”

Sain said he expects the first introduction of bioplastics will be in smaller, more focused market segments, particularly in the thermoplastic and thermosetting markets. He suspects one of the first commercial products may be blow-molded bottles made from bioplastics derived from hemp or corn.

(Cf. news of July 11, 2005.)

Source: www.canplastics.com Sept. 02, 2005.

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