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Bio-plastics innovation: from cookery to industry

United Kingdom – Bio-plastics could become more commercially viable using waste cooking oil as a source material, scientists from two UK universities believe.

Dr Iza Radecka, senior lecturer in biotechnology at the University of Wolverhampton, told a conference of the Society for General Microbiology that the oil would be naturally synthesised by microbes. Apart from reducing environmental contamination, this would also ‘€˜create high-quality plastics suitable for medical implants,’€™ she said.

The bacterium Ralstonia eutropha H16 is the key ingredient in the process. ‘€˜Currently, growing bacteria in large fermenters to produce high quantities of this bio-plastic is expensive because glucose is used as a starting material,’€™ stated Dr Radecka. But substituting glucose with cooking oil took the process onto a different level.

‘€˜Our bioplastic-producing bacterium produced three times more PHB [polyhydroxybutyrate] over 48 hours than when it was grown in glucose,’€™ confirmed Victor Irorer, who carried out the research at the University of Wolverhampton. Electrospinning experiments, performed in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, additionally proved that ‘€˜nanofibres of the plastic produced from oils were also less crystalline, which means it is more suited to medical applications,’€™ he said.

Dr Radecka pointed out the end material, which can be labelled polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), was naturally biodegradable. ‘€˜The use of biodegradable plastics such as PHB is encouraged to help reduce environmental contamination. Using waste cooking oil is a double benefit as it enables the production of bio-plastics but also reduces environmental contamination caused by disposal of waste oil,’€™ she said.

The Wolverhampton said its next challenge was to scale up its experiments to determine whether the process could succeed at industrial level.

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