The research will be undertaken by the group's bioplastic division Biome Bioplstics, one of the UK's leading developers of natural plastics, in conjunction with the University of Warwick's Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining.
The £150,000 grant is part of the Technology Strategy Board's ‘Sustainable high value chemical manufacture through industrial biotechnology' technical feasability competition, which funds projects that apply sustainable bio-based feedstocks and biocatalytic processes in the production of chemicals.
The Technology Strategy Board has identified the potential of industrial biotechnology to help the chemical industry move away from a dependency on fossil resources to a bioeconomy based on renewable and biological compounds.
Although bioplastics are often based on natural materials, some oil-based chemicals are widely used in their manufacture to convey properties including mechanical strength, tear resistance and durability. Deriving these chemicals from a plentiful, natural source could significantly reduce costs, expand functionality and increase performance in bioplastics, enhancing their ability to compete with, and ultimately replace, conventional oil-based plastics.
One of the most interesting sources of these bio-based chemicals is lignin, the complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants. As a waste product of the pulp and paper industry, lignin is a potentially abundant feedstock that could provide the foundation for a new generation of bioplastics.
Biome has partnered with the University of Warwick's Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining that is pioneering academic research into lignin degrading bacteria. Biome is working with the Warwick team to develop methods to control the lignin breakdown process to determine whether these chemicals can be extracted in significant quantities.
"The environmental and social concerns surrounding the use of fossil fuels and food crops make lignin a compelling target as a source of chemicals", explains Professor Tim Bugg, Director of the Centre. "Often considered a waste product, it may provide a sustainable source of building blocks for aromatic chemicals that can be used in bioplastics".
The government-backed Technology Strategy Board's grant will support an initial feasibility project to isolate a chemical from lignin to replace the oil-derived equivalent currently used in a polyester that conveys strength and flexibility in some of Biome's products. The production of such a bio-based polyester would reduce the cost and further enhance the sustainability of these products.
If the initial feasibility assessment is successful, building on this work, Biome will explore the possibilities for deriving a wide selection of bio-based aromatic chemicals from lignin, further reducing cost and expanding bioplastic functionality.
"The bioplastics market remains small compared to that of fossil-based polymers", comments Biome Bioplastics CEO Paul Mines. "Growth is restricted by the price of bioplastic resins being 2-4 times that of their petrochemical counterparts. We anticipate that the availability of a high performance polymer, manufactured economically from renewable sources would considerably increase the market".
Industrial biotechnology is firmly supported by the UK government as a means of opening up new, emerging and established markets to developed less carbon instensive products and processes. It poses a significant opportunity for the UK's chemical sector to maintain and increase its competitiveness through the development of efficient and sustainable ways of satisfying our chemical and material needs. The total value to the UK of using industrial biotechnology is estimated to be between £4bn and £12bn by 2025.