Next generation of bioplastics could be made from trees

June 16, 2014 by Tom Frew
Next generation of bioplastics could be made from trees

A research project led by Biome Bioplastics, aided by research conducted by the University of Warwick's Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining, has demonstrated the feasibility of extracting organic chemicals from lignin for the manufacture of bioplastics.

The results stem from a grant from the UK's innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, awarded to a consortium led by Biome Bioplastics in early 2013 to investigate as a new source of for bioplastics manufacture, which could significantly reduce costs and increase performance of these sustainable materials.

Lignin is a complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants and trees. As a waste product of the pulp and paper industry, lignin is a potentially abundant and low-cost feedstock for the high performance chemicals that could provide the foundation for the next generation of bioplastics.

The research was undertaken in conjunction with the University of Warwick's Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining led by Professor Tim Bugg, whose team has been working to develop methods to control the breakdown of lignin using bacteria and extract these chemicals in significant quantities.

The project has successfully demonstrated that bacteria can be effective in the selective degradation of lignin, and that the breakdown pathway can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology. Crucially, several organic chemicals have been produced at laboratory scale in promising yields that have potential use in bioplastic manufacture.

Initial scale-up trials on several of these target chemicals have demonstrated the potential for them to be produced at industrial scale, suggesting the commercial feasibility of using lignin-derived chemicals as an alternative for their petrochemical counterparts. Biome Bioplastics has also transformed these chemicals into a material that shows promising properties for use as an advanced bioplastic.

"Scientists have been trying to extract chemicals from lignin for more than 30 years. Previously, methods have been used but these produce a very complex mixture of hundreds of different products in very small amounts. By using bacteria found in soil we can manipulate the lignin degradation pathway to control the chemicals produced," explains Professor Tim Bugg, Director of the Warwick Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining. "This is groundbreaking work. We've made great progress over the last year and the results are very exciting. "

The next phase of the project will examine how the yields of these organic chemicals can be increased using different bacteria and explore options for further scale-up of this technology. The first commercial target is to use the lignin-derived chemicals to replace the oil-derived equivalents currently used to convey strength and flexibility in some of Biome Bioplastics' products, further reducing cost and enhancing sustainability.

Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Bioplastics, commented: "We are extremely pleased with the initial results of the feasibility study, which show strong promise for integration into our product lines. Looking ahead, we anticipate that the availability of a high performance polymer, manufactured economically from renewable sources would considerably increase the bioplastic market."

Explore further: First wood-digesting enzyme found in bacteria could boost biofuel production

Related Stories

Lignin breakthroughs serve as GPS for plant research

March 11, 2014

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed the equivalent of GPS directions for future plant scientists to understand how plants adapt to the environment and to improve plants' productivity and biofuel ...

Video: Using microbes to generate bioplastics

March 12, 2014

European scientists are experimenting with bacteria and algae and turn them into bioplastic factories. Their vision: these microorganisms should produce a large portion of our plastic materials without any petroleum.

A tipping point for lignin

May 19, 2014

( —Led by Art Ragauskas, the newly appointed Oak Ridge National Laboratory-University of Tennessee Governor's Chair in Biorefining, a multi-institutional team of researchers offers a new view of an organic polymer ...

Recommended for you

Organic semiconductors get weird at the edge

October 6, 2015

As the push for tinier and faster electronics continues, a new finding by scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Monash University could help inform the design of the next generation of cheaper, more efficient ...

New polymer creates safer fuels

October 1, 2015

Before embarking on a transcontinental journey, jet airplanes fill up with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. In the event of a crash, such large quantities of fuel increase the severity of an explosion upon impact. Researchers ...

Researchers print inside gels to create unique shapes

September 30, 2015

(—A team of researchers at the University of Florida has taken the technique of printing objects inside of a gel a step further by using a highly shear-rate sensitive gel. In their paper published in the journal ...


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.