We rely on oil to make plastics. Now, plants can change that
The plastic-based products and electronics that we rely on to power our lives are currently made possible by petroleum, a fossil fuel. But three researchers from Sandia National Laboratories may have just helped to solve that problem.
According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month, it’s possible to break down lignin—a part of plants’ cell wall—into chemicals that mimic the essential structures of petroleum-derived materials at a lower cost than ever before. These lignin-based chemicals can be used to filter air and water, pave roads, build electronics, and make more biodegradable plastic-mix products.
Plant-based alternatives to petroleum products, while more sustainable and environmentally friendly, are typically more expensive to use, especially at scale. To get plant-based plastics, scientists used to need several different chemicals. Thanks to this new research, now they can break down lignin using E. coli pumped up with a substance called vanillin.
The E. coli bacteria convert the vanillin into another chemical, catechol, which acts as a gatekeeper for the chemical reactions. Basically, catechol ensures the reaction products aren’t toxic. This creates a delicious “fermentation broth” (I am sorry—that is literally what it is called) that yields material for plant based plastics more simply and inexpensively than ever before.
Lead researcher Seema Singh said in a press release that by reducing the cost barrier, this research opens up a new horizon for lignin-based products. "We have found this piece of the lignin valorization puzzle, providing a great starting point for future research into scalable, cost-effective solutions," she said.