Tiny nanotechnology is used to convert vegetation into the basic building blocks of plastic called hydrocarbons.
Before now hydrocarbons could only be cheaply extracted from crude oil, from which most fossil fuels and plastics are derived.
Researchers from Dutch Utrecht University devised a special iron-based catalyst which helps make usable plastics with little excess methane given off in the process.
Bioplastics are already something which are in use, but they are not a direct substitute, this new technology can be directly transferred to any modern use for plastics.
A fear on running out of fossil fuels is that not only will cars not be able to run any more but also that tyres and plastics for circuit-boards will have no way of being made.
Nanotechnology (technology on the scale of one billionth of a metre) has allowed the fossil fuel shortage to be less of a fear as vegetation is a hugely renewable resource.
This catalyst will work on even the “waste” parts of plants (which aren't used in food or medicine).
However, this does raise many concerns about deforestation, as it stands deforestation is a largely unsustainable activity, especially in areas of the Amazon in which thousands of animals are killed as a result.
This could also increase carbon emissions, so this new technology must come into use at a time where the long term future of manufacturing is made sustainable if it is to be environmentally beneficial.
The plastics which the nanotechnology can procure will be just as biodegradable as usual plastic – not at all – so recycling is still as important an issue as ever.
The fact that the technology can be used on all parts of the crop like stalks and off-cuts it means that the land-area that the plants are grown should not increase too much.
Researcher Krijn De Jong suggests using non-food vegetation for the new process, such fast growing bamboos and grasses, limiting the competition between food and plastic agriculture.
The paper was printed by Journal Science, it is still in its early stages and requires the scientific community to test the validity and durability of the product, that means that plant-based plastics may not be an everyday reality for a number of years.
The team are planning to link with a leading producer of catalytic converters (a key part of most vehicles) to help increase the product's production.
The iron catalysts which enable the conversion from plant to plastic are made from nanoparticles.
These nano-particles are laced onto nanofibres which hold the particles apart, meaning that the right plant material can be converted into hydrocarbons.
This technology may actually never come into being as the US have found a huge amount of shale gas, which can be used to form ethylene (a plastic hydrocarbon).
The plastic conversion idea is not a new one, but the most recent studies have paved the way for a much cheaper and more efficient way of doing it using nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology has a number of uses in the modern era and may well be a stepping stone to further development in all areas of science and technology.
|Utrecht University Press Release|