Replacing fossil fuels with new materials requires knowledge on protein behaviour

Replacing fossil fuels with new materials requires knowledge on protein behaviour

2020-04-16 William (Bill) Newson is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and part of STEPS’ work package two. It aims to produce “drop-in” as well as novel polyesters that will be characterized and evaluated for applications such as fibres, coatings, packaging and films. Bill Newson and his colleagues work primarily with natural proteins such as wheat gluten. Their ambition is to contribute to knowledge on protein behavior, and ultimately to develop new materials to replace fossil oil-based plastics.

As part of their research, they have tried to combine natural proteins with biobased building blocks made for example from sugar to create polymers with new qualities and properties.

– Polymers made of fossil oil are engineered to do specific jobs. This is what we want from environmentally friendly and natural polymers too. We want a toolbox which can cover a spectrum of applications.

– Some natural protein blends have an elastic quality, which could be combined with a more brittle plastic such as biobased PLA (polylactic acid) to create a new, more stretchable polymer. This could be one way of combining different proteins and building blocks to create new materials.

However, there are many challenges involved in mixing natural proteins and synthesized materials to create new polymers. They include problems with recycling and stability. A mixed polymer cannot be recycled easily, and natural proteins are quite unstable and not very water resistant. These challenges have led Bill Newson to focus more on developing materials made out of only plant based proteins. These materials can be used to create products and applications that can biodegrade in nature, for example plastic sheets over cropland, coatings on seeds, and degradable plant pots.

– At this stage, we are looking at how proteins behave as opposed to focusing on product development. What happens when you stretch and bend the material? We need to find out more about the actual properties of the protein.

Bill Newson focuses on plant proteins with a low environmental impact, for example proteins produced from side streams of agricultural production.

– In the future, we will still need to make physical things to meet our needs. So now, we are trying to create new materials, which can perform in the same way, or even better, than the current materials, but with less impact on our environment.

Yet, Bill Newson notes that it will take more than just production of new materials to accelerate a large scale transition to a sustainable society. Consistent legislation is also needed, as are changes in consumer behavior.

– I have worked in the industry myself, and the sheer scale of the sectors that have to make a transition is staggering. The industry needs regulations that are long-term to make changes. There are so many questions to address: a company needs to know that it will be able to get enough materials over a foreseeable future, it needs to set up industrial processes and the company needs to be sure that the new material is safe.

– Yet, while we need changes on many levels, I hope that our work can contribute to this transition. By providing new knowledge and insights on protein behavior, we hope to inspire other researchers and industry to take our work one step further and produce new materials and products, he notes.

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