Engineering pine-sourced plastics without any need for petroleum
No matter where you’re reading this, there’s a safe bet that you won’t need to move an inch to come into contact with some kind of petroleum product. From computers to clothing, the versatility of petroleum-based plastics is hard to match, at least until we run out of it. Since our oil supplies aren’t renewable, at least in a reasonable time span, scientists have been looking for new materials to mold into our forks, furniture and everything else. Some corn- or sugar-based ingredients don’t need to be buried in the Earth to become useful, but they do need to be doped with a polymer called caprolactone, which we still get from crude-oil. We’re getting closer though, as the latest contender literally grows on trees (well, in trees.)
Researchers from the University of Bath have been working with an oil naturally produced by pine trees called pinene. Pinene is a form of terpene, and has been used by humans in a number of ways throughout history, from fuels to turpentine. The most common association with pinene is its smell, which is responsible for that fresh pine scent you encounter in a forest, and in this natural state it’s not quite ready to be molded into toys or tools. However, with a bit of preparation the pinene could be a great, renewable petroleum substitute, at least until we run out of it.
Harvested from byproducts and bacteria
Currently, the biggest supplier of pinene would be paper manufacturers, as they routinely discard pinene as a waste product. Rather than cut down a forest to make plastics, reusing what would otherwise be a waste product is an obvious improvement, both economically and environmentally. However, plastic consumption is huge, and researchers predict that paper mills won’t be able to keep up with demand if the process is easily scaled up.
Fortunately, the successful adoption of pinene shouldn’t force us to clear cut forests to make our favorite products— analogous compounds are available in citrus oils, but researchers are already planning beyond these pleasantly-scented sources. Part of the project is looking to bacteria to produce suitable terpene compounds, with the expectation that they can be scaled up easily around the world, and with the smallest environmental footprint. There’s still a fair amount of work to be done before you can buy some pine or lemon-fresh plastics, but scientists and engineers are hoping to offer some truly petroleum-free plastics in the next five years.
Source: Renewable Plastic Can Be Created From Pine Needle Waste by Alyssa Danigelis, Seeker