Research published today could signal the end of “fossil fuel single-use plastics” as the science behind a new plant protein substitute is made public, according to the journal Nature Communications.
Researchers at the UK-based University of Cambridge Knowles Lab describe how they can create a polymer film from plant protein that is sustainable, scalable and 100 per cent natural.
Made entirely from plant protein, which can be sourced as a by-product of the agriculture industry, the resulting material can be consumed in nature after use like any natural waste, leaving no pollutants behind, claim the researchers.
The material’s functionality is consistent with conventional plastics, but it requires no chemical cross-linking used in bio-polymers to give them the strength and flexibility of plastics. The chemicals used in cross-linking are often unsustainable and can even leave toxic pollutants behind once disposed of, claims the paper.
The final structure of the plant proteins is said to be similar to spider silk. Through a process involving acetic acid and water, ultrasonication and heat, the plant proteins are transformed using “easily obtainable, sustainable ingredients”.
Xampla, the Cambridge University spin-out commercialising the technology, is developing applications in the areas of flexible packaging films, sachets, microcapsules found in home and personal care products, and carrier bags.
The paper is the culmination of more than 10 years’ research into understanding how nature generates materials from proteins.
The scientists were inspired by spiders’ silk, which is weight-for-weight stronger than steel but has weak molecular bonds, meaning it can break down easily. They sought to understand the building blocks of this natural phenomenon, with the aim to create a material with the same molecular properties.
Professor Tuomas Knowles, who led the research, said: “One of the key breakthroughs is that we can supply this product on a large scale, and it can replace plastics in very specific applications. We have proved it’s possible to solve the single-use plastics problem.”
Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia, co-author of the paper and Xampla’s head of research, said: “It’s amazing to realise that a discovery you make in a lab can have a big impact on solving a global problem.”