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How Australian scientists are sourcing bio-plastic from toxic waste.

Posted on Sep 15, 2017 11:10:00 PM

A mining by-product is being developed into bioplastic.jpg“By upcycling the carbon from a waste stream we are able to avoid the production of carbon dioxide whilst creating something useful."

Australian researchers have successfully developed a method that puts a difficult-to-treat industrial waste to good use, transforming it into biodegradable plastic that could one days be used to make life-saving medical equipment.

Following the lead of plastics made from food waste, scientists from the School of Engineering and Information Technology at Murdoch University near Perth have applied the principle to one of the major waste products of the alumina industry. Alumina is a porous, granular substance that is used as an adsorbent for removing water from gases and liquids.

Researchers Dr Damian Laird and Dr Leonie Hughes were both involved in the work, focusing their attention on making sustainable plastic from the material that would otherwise be stockpiled. “This will be a naturally produced plastic that is biocompatible and completely biodegradable, and one of our goals is to 3D print products for the medical industry such as stents and sutures,” said Dr Hughes.

A functional plastic that can be used for a wide range of uses, Dr Hughes explained it could be employed in the most innovative of ways, Hughes said: “We are taking inspiration from the production of bioplastic from food waste and applying it to a toxic by-product of the alumina industry.

By upcycling the carbon from a waste stream we are able to avoid the production of carbon dioxide whilst creating something useful,” he added.

To develop the environmentally-friendly plastic, the team sourced an initial bacterial culture from a local wastewater treatment plant to create a synthetic wastewater that would help them understand the conditions required for bacteria to convert the oxalate waste product into plastic. The Murdoch University researchers is now identifying the suite of bacteria that can work in the process and examining ways to increase the amount of oxalate that is converted.

The team is also exploring other ways to make bio-based products, collaborating with Murdoch University’s Algae Research and Development Centre to use the blue-green algae often used in biofuel production, cyanobacteria, to accelerate the process – a situation Dr Hughes hoped would form part of an integrated bio-refinery at Murdoch University.

The research for this work can be viewed on the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering.

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Topics: BBWNChemicals, Australia, Feedstock&Clusters

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Dave Songer