PRODUCTION OF BUILDING BLOCKS FROM RENEWABLE FEEDSTOCKS
The aim of WP 1 in the STEPS program is to develop environmentally benign tools and processes for making safe, nontoxic building blocks (or monomers) for the polymers from renewable feedstocks. Polymers are the main components in plastics and the nature of the monomers used largely defines the properties of the plastic product.
As the focus in STEPS is on polyesters, the monomers to be made in WP1 will comprise primarily aliphatic/aromatic diacids, hydroxyacids and diols that are linked together through an ester bond.
The important consideration for the production of chemical building blocks is the sustainability of the feedstocks as well as the process technologies. Renewable feedstocks include mostly organic material obtained from plant kingdom such as from agriculture, forestry, aquatic plants, algae – generally called as biomass, but also organic wastes generated as a result of human activity, and gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
When using biomass as feedstock, we will consider aspects such as availability in the region and in Europe, potential competition with food, feed, and other industries, environmental impact, and policies impacting their use. Among the biomass streams that are being evaluated are those from production of sugar, starch and paper pulp obtained from our industrial partners. Pretreatment and fractionation of several of these streams is required to separate the biomass components and obtain cleaner sugar stream for use as raw material for producing the building blocks.
The process technologies for transformation of the feedstock will follow the green chemistry principles where besides the renewable feedstocks, high atom economy, heterogeneous catalysis, low energy consumption, reduced waste, etc. will constitute important parameters.
Industrial biotechnology is among the main process alternatives, wherein microorganisms or their enzymes serve as mild, biodegradable catalysts. The enormous microbial diversity in nature provides access to large number of enzymes and metabolic pathways that can be used for production of natural as well as non-natural molecules that can serve as polymer building blocks. Furthermore, modern computational- and genetic tools can be used to improve the efficiency, selectivity and stability of both the microbes and enzymes.
Routes for transformation of sugars as well as CO2 will be designed based on microbial-/enzymatic-/ chemical conversions, constructed and optimized. and evaluated with respect to production efficiency, economic- and environmental sustainability.
The research groups participating in WP1 are Departments of Biotechnology and Chemical Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Lund University. Several companies including Bona, Nordic Sugar, Lyckeby, Polykemi and Södra also cooperate in this WP.
PREPARATION, CHARACTERIZATION AND APPLICATION OF BIO-BASED PLASTICS
This work package is focusing on the preparation of new sustainable biobased plastics with superior quality towards various industrial applications. Here the superior quality is as important as sustainability, because it may increase the chance for the new product with likely higher price to be adopted by industry.
Depending on their applications, we will design and make either more biodegradable or more durable biobased plastics. The former can be easily degraded into harmless matters after their lifetime, so they can help to solve the white plastic pollution. The latter has longer lifetime, and can be easily reused and recycled. It may also have the potential to extend their use in other application fields where durability is an important consideration.
In this work package, we will use the sustainable biobased chemicals prepared from WP1, as well as other green or recycled materials. Specifically, we will focus on the development of new biobased polyesters and composite materials using protein, starch, or cellulose. We will develop new synthetic and processing technologies, using green catalyst, green additives and green techniques. The physical and mechanical properties and biodegradability of the new materials will be studied. Our focused applications include textile fibers, packaging materials, durable plastics, and wooden floor finishes. Upscaling production and product evaluation will be carried out together with industrial partners.
GOVERNING THE TRANSITION TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE PLASTIC SYSTEM
WP3 explores transition pathways for sustainable plastics and how such transitions can be governed. A transition towards a more sustainable plastics production and consumption system involves multiple and interrelated changes in feedstock, technologies, behaviour and norms of producers and consumers, organization of production networks and regulation. An overall aim is to develop research-based advice on policy and industrial strategies for the development and adoption of a sustainable plastic system.
There is no general agreement on what constitutes a sustainable plastics system but some general features are widely accepted. It involves an increase in the resource and material efficiency of plastic consumption, a significant increase in the reuse and recycling of plastics, a shift to new plastic additives with low environmental and health impacts, and a switch to renewable feedstock.
The feedstock issue is closely linked to developments in other sectors where the development of renewable electricity, power-to-gas, carbon capture and use, and technologies for a variety of other bio-based products is shaping the prospects for electricity-, CO2- and bio-based plastics. In contrast to this primary conversion step, the use, reuse and recycling of plastics represents a different playing-field. It is less dependent on developments in other sectors and involves a much broader and diverse set of actors involved in the formulation, design, use, reuse and recycling. The actors range from large companies to household consumers at different stages in the life-cycle of plastics.
For understanding the prospects for change we initially map the existing plastic system in its many dimensions, i.e., to know better what we have to work with. Next, viable plastic pathways are explored and assessed in order to get a clearer idea of where we should be going. Getting there requires strategizing and analysing policy options as well as understanding what needs to happen to instigate and speed up the transition.
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