Petroleum plastics: a thing of the past?

Packaging Professional magazine
27 May 2012

Oil-based plastics used in pharmaceutical, food and beverage packaging might soon be replaced by those made from biomass, according to research at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

Led by Professor Krijn De Jong, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at Utrecht, the team have developed a catalyst that enables the production of plastics from wood-based biomass that have the same characteristics as petroleum-derived plastics. ‘The bioplastic is identical to plastics made today from oil,’ says De Jong.

Professor De Jong explains the process behind the research. ‘Biomass is first converted to synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. From synthesis gas the lower olefins (such as ethane or propene) are made identical to those used today based on crude oil.’ These olefins then form the crucial building blocks necessary to make plastics suitable for a wide range of uses.

The key ingredient of the research was the catalyst developed by the research team. ‘The catalyst contains iron nanoparticles promoted by small amounts of sodium and sulphur,’ explains De Jong, adding that the iron nanoparticles in the catalyst convert the synthesis gas into lower olefins.

According to the researchers, any type of wood waste can be used in the process. They add that the raw materials consist of wood-like biomass, such as branches, plant stalks and pruning waste. ‘We can use poor soil not suitable for agriculture,’ says De Jong. ‘Also, we do not use carbohydrates but rather lignocellulose biomass.’ De Jong adds that the material is a sustainable and efficient method that could provide a long-term replacement for petroleum-based plastics, but for this to happen, a shift in infrastructure would be needed, in particular, towards increasing the sustainable production of biomass that does not compete with food.

According to De Jong, no special facilities or technology are needed to produce biomass plastic. ‘All technology is [already] known, the missing link was our catalyst.’