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Source: Fraunhofer-GesellschaftPlastics have become an integral part of our everyday lives. They are not only processed into packaging and consumer goods, but are also essential in industrial applications such as automobile construction or medical technology. Plastics from fossil raw material sources are only reused and recycled to a limited extent, and they only degrade very slowly and pollute the environment sustainably. Evidence of the pollution are huge plastic garbage islands that are floating on our oceans. Plastic bottles and bags spoil beaches and, in many places, entire stretches of land. Research initiative “Bioeconomy International” Since plastics are used all over the world, global recycling strategies are urgently required. More and more governments are therefore relying on bans to get the plastic waste under control. So far, fossil plastics cannot be replaced on a large scale – that is why the Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF has launched the research initiative “Bioeconomy International” in close cooperation with the Fraunhofer IPK, the department for bioprocess engineering at the TU Berlin, regional industrial partners and international ones Research partners from Malaysia, Colombia and the USA. The scientists developed a process for the production of polymers that does without high-quality raw materials such as mineral, palm or rapeseed oil, the processing of which is very harmful to the environment. New plastic is comparable to polypropylene The plastic polyhydroxybutyric acid (PHB) is used in the new Process made from industrial residues such as waste fats with a high proportion of mineral residues. In special fermentation processes, microorganisms can metabolize these residues. They store the PHB as energy storage in their cells. “After the plastic has been removed from the cell of the organisms, it cannot be used industrially because it solidifies far too slowly,” says Christoph Hein, head of the microproduction technology department at Fraunhofer IPK. The raw material is therefore mixed with chemical additives through special post-processing steps. For example, by adjusting plasticization and processing parameters, the research teams were able to modify the recrystallization time to meet industrial processing time requirements. The result is a plastic that has properties comparable to those of polypropylene (PP). In contrast to PP, however, it is completely degradable within a period of six to twelve months. In this type of plastic production, the polymers are completely biotechnologically synthesized by microorganisms. “To do this, we convert biogenic residues such as waste fats into technically usable polyesters,” explains Hein. The researcher and his team use molecular-genetically modified microorganisms as biocatalysts. With the help of chemical cleaning processes and extensive material optimization, they were able to develop a new type of material family that meets the requirements for engineering plastics.Process does not require any petroleum-based synthetic componentsThe new process not only manages completely without petroleum-based synthetic components, it also enables an environmentally friendly degradation process. The plastics developed can be degraded by naturally occurring microorganisms and are not bound to specific degradation conditions in industrial composting plants. Above all, single-use products and other disposable items can be manufactured and dismantled in an environmentally friendly way. High-quality plastic parts for specific technical purposes and durations can also be manufactured in this way. Such products are subject to special quality requirements. They require special shape and position tolerances and surface qualities, or they have to be particularly precisely reproducible. In order to meet these demands, the scientists developed highly specialized replication processes.


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