UoQ’s A$13m research centre wants to lead the way on greener plastics

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE University of Queensland, in Australia is leading a new training centre that aims to become a hub for world-leading research in green plastic.

Commenting on the scale of the plastics pollution crisis, Steven Pratt, who is leading the research centre, said that of the almost 400m t/y of plastic destined for landfill, more than 10m t/y leaks into oceans. “Urgent change is needed, and biodegradable bioplastics along with their natural fibre composites, will be pivotal,” he added. Pratt is an Associate Professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at Queensland.

The A$13m (US$9.1m) Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites will be based at the school and aims to help eliminate the problem of plastic pollution.

The centre’s scope spans the entire value chain, from natural resource development, bio-product development, and distribution, to end-of-life management and waste transformation.

Supply chain integration complemented by system-wide technoeconomic assessment is one of four research themes. Pratt said that material flow within the bioeconomy is complex, which impacts scalability, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of the system. Additionally, the implementation of new technologies is affected by broader system factors. Through resource analysis, and economic and sustainability assessments, the researchers want to inform the decisions made by industry and government as they work to advance the bioeconomy.

To help overcome the engineering constraints associated with scaling up technology, the researchers will work to make advances in polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) production at both laboratory and pilot scale. The research team says that PHA is emerging as a material of particular interest as it is the only bioplastic that is hydrophobic, bioderived, and fully biodegradable in the natural environment. Its market growth is faster than any other biopolymer.

A key challenge for biotechnology in commercial production of PHA is the difficulty of maintaining pure cultures of PHA accumulating organisms. To address this, researchers will consider halophiles – organisms with high salt tolerance – for bioproduction in highly saline conditions. This would prevent the growth of competing organisms, allowing cultures to remain enriched with PHA accumulators. It would also allow extraction of PHA using low-cost osmotic shock.

Researchers will also work to devise novel bioplastic and biocomposite products and applications. According to Pratt, bioplastics and biocomposites have the potential to replace about one third of petroleum-based polymers, and they are already widely used for disposable items such as packaging, containers, straws, bags, and bottles. He said there is also a significant opportunity for immediate application of bioplastics and biocomposites in areas where collection and recycling is “near impossible”. For example, in agriculture, they could be used as biodegradable mulch films and encapsulations and coatings for fertilisers and other agrochemicals that would not have to be removed and disposed.

The team is keen to help change waste disposal and recycling culture. Pratt said this would be achieved by “improving sustainability, technoeconomic and life cycle assessments and developing strategies for addressing social and policy barriers to change”. 

There will be 19 PhD projects at the centre working across the centre’s four themes. “Some PhD projects are bench-scale bioprocessing projects, some are bench/demonstration-scale biocomposite production and prototyping. Some are desktop technoeconomic studies; some are a field trials to check [the] end-of-life of these materials,” Pratt said.

ARC Industrial Transformation Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites will also focus on training to develop industry-ready researchers in chemical and materials engineering, polymer chemistry, environmental science, social science, policy, and business.

The centre is a partnership between the between the University of Queensland; The Queensland University of Technology; the Queensland Government; personal care product manufacturer Kimberly-Clark Australia; bioplastics company Plantic Technologies; Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, which wants to  create a circular economy for packaging; the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation; and the City of Gold Coast.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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