Plant-based alternative to plastic microbeads set for scaleup

Article by Adam Duckett

ENGINEERS have received funding to scale up a technology that produces sustainable alternatives to the harmful plastic microbeads that used to be found in everyday personal care products, and are still used in cosmetics, paints and construction.

The technology is being developed by Naturbeads, a company spun out of research from the chemical engineering department at the University of Bath, UK. The continuous process involves pushing a solution of cellulose through a tubular membrane into a channel of flowing sunflower oil. Droplets form on the surface of the membrane and are cleaved off by the flowing sunflower oil. They can then be separated out for use as exfoliants in personal care products and, if the development goes to plan, will replace microbeads used in larger-volume applications including paints and construction materials. The cellulose is a biodegradable natural biopolymer produced by plants that can be readily sourced from agricultural residues.

Plastic microbeads were a common sight in so-called rinse-off personal care products including shower gels and toothpastes until concerns were raised about how they slip through the filters in wastewater treatment plants and escape out into the environment where they harm wildlife. A series of bans came into force, including in the UK in 2018 which stopped their use in rinse-off products but they are still used in “leave on” products including sun cream and eyeliner.

Davide Mattia, who is the company co-founder and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Bath, said the 20–25 t/y demonstration plant will allow the company to provide commercial volumes of product for customers and provide the proof needed to scale the technology to produce thousands or tens of thousands of tons needed to provide an alternative supply for larger volume applications that currently use plastic microbeads.

“While the widescale presence of microbeads is a good thing for our company it is depressing for the environment. Paints and coatings contain plastic microbeads and lots of prefabricated panels used in construction contain plastic microbeads.”

Asked about the scaleup challenges, Mattia said the key process engineering focus will be improving areas related to purification, separation and fractionation.

He said the location for the new plant is still being discussed. Naturbeads' £1.3m (US$1.5m) of funding has come from Italian Venture Capital fund Progress Tech Transfer, Eos Advisory and Proionic.

Andrew McNeill, Managing Partner of Eos Advisory, said: “Microbead plastic water pollution is a significant and hidden environmental hazard… As countries and industries restrict and ban their use, the market for biodegradable replacements is vast.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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