Development of Euglena-based bioplastics

February 28, 2013
Development of Euglena-based bioplastics
Production processes of microalga-based bioplastics from Euglena and cashew nut shells.

Researchers from AIST have developed microalga-based bioplastics mainly from constituents extracted from Euglena, a species of microalga.

The microalga-based were synthesized by introducing either a long-chain fatty acid obtained from a lipid (wax ester) derived from Euglena or a modified form of cardanol (a lipid derived from cashew nut shells that has both a flexible long- and a rigid ) to a polysaccharide (paramylon) produced by Euglena. Features of the bioplastics include high thermal plasticity and heat resistance as well as a plant component percentage as high as about 70%. This research has been conducted as part of the Advanced Low Research and Development Program (ALCA) of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

With the growing sense of global warming crisis, increasing attention is being given to plant-based resources as alternatives to petroleum-based products. About 230 million tons of plastic is produced annually (about 13 million tons in Japan). Most plastics are produced by polymerizing petroleum-based under high temperature and pressure conditions. Consequently, plastic production generates enormous amounts of and uses tremendous amounts of energy. The use of plant-based alternatives to petroleum-based products involves the risk that alone cannot meet the demand that is of the order of several tens of million tons. In addition, it is desirable that the used to produce the alternative plastics is inedible and thus does not compete with . Regardless, the major issue—not only in the production of alga-based plastics but also in microorganism- and biocatalyst-based production technologies—is to improve the balance between energy used for production and energy saved.

Figure 1: Production processes of the microalga-based bioplastics.

This research and development have been conducted as part of the research topic "Development of bioplastics using inedible polysaccharides" (R&D Director: Masatoshi Iji, Research Fellow, Smart Energy Research Laboratory, NEC Corporation) under the ALCA program (FY2011-2016) commissioned by JST. The purpose of the research is to develop innovative bioplastics that use polysaccharides of steadily available, inedible plants such as cellulose and enable a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. To minimize the dependence on terrestrial plants as a source of polysaccharides and improve the functionality of bioplastics by diversifying the molecular structure of polysaccharides, the researchers have conducted the development of microalga-based bioplastics using a polysaccharide (paramylon) produced by Euglena as a main constituent. It is well known that microalgae generally have higher solar energy utilization efficiency than that of terrestrial plants. Among microalgae, it is notable that Euglena can directly use high concentrations of carbon dioxide and can achieve high light utilization efficiency. For these reasons, Euglena was selected as the source of raw material for bioplastics. In addition, Euglena can be cultured with industrial effluent from food-processing plants, and its use therefore should lead to the reduction in energy used to produce plastics.

The developed microalga-based bioplastics were synthesized by adding a long-chain fatty acid synthesized from wax ester formed when paramylon (a polysaccharide produced in large quantities in Euglena cells) is decomposed in Euglena cells or modified cardanol synthesized from a lipid (cardanol) extracted from cashew nut shells to paramylon. Figure 1 shows the chemical formulae of the compounds and production processes of the bioplastics.

Figure 2: Difference between β-1,3-glucan (paramylon) and β-1,4-glucan (cellulose).

The main raw material is β-1,3-glucan, a natural polymer consisting of glucose molecules. Cellulose (β-1,4-glucan), which is a constituent of trees, is also a polymer consisting of glucose molecules. However, the glucose molecules in β-1,3- and β-1,4-glucans are linked in different ways: cellulose has a sheet-like structure, whereas β-1,3-glucan has a single- or triple-helix structure. Thus, there is a large difference in steric structure between the two glucans (Fig. 2).

The properties of the developed microalga-based bioplastics were measured. Their impact strength needs to be improved, but their thermal plasticity is comparable to that of conventional bioplastics (polylactic acid and nylon 11), cellulose acetate with plasticizer, and petroleum-based ABS plastic. They have higher heat resistance than that of these plastics (Fig. 3). There is no significant difference in properties between the plastic with cardanoxy acetic acid and the plastic with wax ester-derived long-chain fatty acid.

Figure 3: Comparison of heat resistance of microalga-based bioplastics and other plastics (Myristoyl group added β-1,3-glucan and cardanoxy acetic acid added β-1,3-glucan are microalga-based bioplastics.)

The researchers will elucidate the detailed relationship between the properties and structure of the microalga-based plastics and will advance molecular design aiming at commercially applicable properties such as high and high strength. Also, they will study the technologies required to produce microalga-based plastics, including processes for efficient culture of Euglena and extraction of paramylon.

Explore further: Helping corn-based plastics take more heat

Related Stories

Helping corn-based plastics take more heat

September 1, 2010

A team of scientists from USDA and a cooperating company are working to make corn-derived plastics more heat tolerant -- research that may broaden the range of applications for which these plastics could be used as an alternative ...

Chemistry professor developing sustainable bioplastics

January 19, 2012

( -- A Colorado State University chemistry professor has developed several patent-pending chemical processes that would create sustainable bioplastics from renewable resources for use on everything from optical ...

Waste cooking oil makes bioplastics cheaper

September 3, 2012

"Bioplastics" that are naturally synthesized by microbes could be made commercially viable by using waste cooking oil as a starting material. This would reduce environmental contamination and also give high-quality plastics ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

New 'self-healing' gel makes electronics more flexible

November 25, 2015

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a first-of-its-kind self-healing gel that repairs and connects electronic circuits, creating opportunities to advance the ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Atom-sized craters make a catalyst much more active

November 24, 2015

Bombarding and stretching an important industrial catalyst opens up tiny holes on its surface where atoms can attach and react, greatly increasing its activity as a promoter of chemical reactions, according to a study by ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.