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The Third Generation of Bioplastics: Algae-Based Biopolymers

SpecialChem / Sep 27, 2010

Petroleum drying up will lead to a sharp crisis requiring to find new sources for the plastics industry. Moreover, environmental requirements and the green trends lead to a broad use of renewable raw materials.

Currently, bioplastic industry is using renewable material such as starches from corn, tapioca, wheat and potatoes in the manufacture of bio-based resins sometimes entering in competition with food uses.

Algae have some main potential advantages related to the growing speed and the cultivation conditions. They can rapidly grow, producing 15-times more vegetable oil per hectare than other feedstocks and can be cultivated in seawater, saving fertile land and fresh water for food cultivation. Marine algae only require sunlight, seawater, carbon dioxide (CO2) and nutrients to grow converting overabundant CO2 into useful biomass.

Major companies such as Dow, Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon collaborate with research centres, state organizations and small businesses to develop algal raw materials for bioplastics and biofuels production.

Obviously, there are some issues concerning cultivation, harvesting and treatments leading to some uncertainty for the breakthrough of this promising way. Alginic acid and alginate polymer derivatives are well-known as hydroswelling, gelling and thickening additives but they also have uses as material for dental impression and moulding for soft or delicate objects or, in combination with other polymers, for specific applications.

The true innovative breakthrough can come from algae-based plastic grades, the ethanol and other alcohol routes leading to biopolyethylene, bio-PVC or bio-EVA.

The biofuel way is of a great interest because of the huge amounts of targeted productions, several times the tonnage of conventional plastics, the use of processing methods of the petroleum industry and polymerization processes of the chemical industry.

Many other pathways are investigated, for example the use of dried algae fibres as polymeric reinforcement, the combination of sugar from green algae and clay to obtain nanomaterials, the use of Natural Oil Polyols (NOP) to produce foam cores for composites…

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