All too often we hear the damaging long-term effects that sugar can cause for our bodies. However, scientists at the University of Bath have discovered a way of using sugar that could benefit our health. The polycarbonate made from sugar, carbon dioxide and water is a new process that uses low pressures and room temperature to make plastic cheaper and safer to produce. This new plastic is bio-compatible which could make it the future for medical implants or make scaffolds to grow replacement organs for transplants. They claim it is as strong, transparent and scratch-resistant, just like the traditional non-biodegradable version made using petrochemicals. The key difference is the eco-friendly bio-based polymer which can be degraded back into carbon dioxide and sugar using the enzymes found in soil bacteria.
"It’s early days, but the future looks promising."
Sugar is the generic name given to the sweet-flavoured substance that is used in food. However, it can be derived from many different sources such as the tissues in most plants. The sugar being used by researchers has been found in our DNA called thymidine as the key material in developing the bioplastics.
PhD student Georgina Gregory, of the University of Bath’s ( @UniofBath ) Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, said: “Because it is already present in the body, it means this plastic will be bio-compatible and can be used safely for tissue engineering applications. The properties of this new plastic can be fine-tuned by tweaking the chemical structure – for example we can make the plastic positively charged so that cells can stick to it, making it useful as a scaffold for tissue engineering.”
Although only a very small quantity of the bioplastic was created (amounting to just a few grams), the scientists stress that unlike traditional plastic made of crude oil, their version does not contain BPA, a chemical believed to be harmful for humans, which was used as a chemical weapon during the First World War.
Polycarbonates from sugars offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional polycarbonate from BPA, however the process uses a highly toxic chemical called phosgene. Now a safer, even more sustainable alternative has been developed which adds carbon dioxide to the sugar at low pressures and at room temperature. The new BPA-free plastic could potentially replace current polycarbonates in items such as baby bottles and food containers.
Dr Antoine Buchard Research Fellow in the University’s Department of Chemistry, said: “With an ever-growing population, there is an increasing demand for plastics. This new plastic is a renewable alternative to fossil-fuel based polymers, potentially inexpensive, and because it is biodegradable, will not contribute to growing ocean and landfill waste."
Dr Buchard added: “Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials. It’s early days, but the future looks promising.”