Researchers Steven Strauss and Ganti Murthy of Oregon State University are using a grant from the Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center (BEST) to explore if this might be feasible in hybrid poplar trees grown in the Pacific Northwest.
If even a fraction of the worldwide plastic production of 200 billion pounds per year could be replaced with a percentage of biopolymers, it should improve the environmental health of the planet and positively impact the $300-$500 billion global plastics market, they say.
Strauss and Murthy are collaborating with Portland-based GreenWood Resources, one of the largest hybrid poplar growers in the Pacific Northwest. They say funding from Oregon BEST helped to secure almost $160,000 from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to carry out the initial research. Oregon BEST aims to connect local businesses with university researchers to transform research into potential new products and jobs.
Strauss, a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at OSU, has collaborated with GreenWood Resources in the past. “The people at GreenWood are very wonderful, honest and collaborative folks,” he said.
Jake Eaton, GreenWood’s managing director of global acquisitions and resource planning, said, “Using a renewable resource like poplar trees to produce biopolymers would be revolutionary. And it would ultimately benefit GreenWood Resources, Oregon and the world.”
Although some research into producing the biopolymer polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) has been done, nobody has taken a serious look at trees as a potential source. “This is the first time this has been done in the U.S. — exploring a dedicated energy system with trees,” Strauss said.
Although the biological yield potential and economics of PHB production in a woody plant system is unclear, Strauss and Murthy have found in preliminary work that significant levels of PHB can be produced in poplar with no apparent negative effects.
Major goals for the work are to improve yields by new genetic modifications, and to estimate what the yields would need to be for substantial economic and environmental benefits.
“The net greenhouse gas benefits of doing this with poplar is expected to be greater than with other plants, which require more fertilizer, more frequent plowing and harvesting, and often more pesticides,” Strauss said.
Murthy, a professor of renewable bioresources at OSU, is engaged in sampling and developing models of various systems that could be used to extract PHB from the poplar leaves.
Strauss and Murthy are collaborating with David Dalton, a professor at Reed College and a cooperator on the project. Dalton, Murthy and Strauss are hopeful the research might result in a new renewable source for plastics, additional research funding and more business for Oregon companies.
Source: wallowa.com, 2011-03-03.