Archive for July, 2010

The Progress of Biopolymers

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

For any reader who isn’t aware, most of the world’s plastic is currently made from crude oil. The process involves several steps, depending on the polymer that one is creating, but the total cost is still a fraction of the cost needed to create biopolymers of the same quality. Biopolymers are created by having a culture of bacteria consume large amounts of biomass. When the bacteria are mature, the culture is sterilized and the biopolymer is extracted directly. Many factors are now causing chemical and plastic companies to consider possible ways to reduce their reliance on crude oil, so reducing the cost of biopolymer production has become a greater priority. Since the polymer-using world cannot simply pay double or triple for things like plastic bags, plastic bottles, and plastic tubing, achieving this cost reduction is the missing critical factor to wide scale use of biopolymers.

The difference in cost between standard polymer production and biopolymer production is not caused by any one factor. Since the world uses such a large amount of plastic, existing polymer production facilities are huge, whereas biopolymers are mainly produced by small specialty groups and laboratories. Several companies are now considering the construction of large scale biopolymer factories, but they are waiting on the researchers to bring down the other areas of cost first. At present, it requires 3 times the weight in biomass to create a unit of biopolymer. This is because the bacteria being used are only able to consume certain nutrients from the biomass, leaving the rest behind as unusable waste material. Efforts are underway to find or engineer a more efficient bacteria for this task. The other side of the coin is to more effectively process the biomass such that a greater portion of it is consumable by the bacteria. Many different areas of research are currently being conducted toward this achieving this end, because labs and universities know the impact of these discoveries will be felt for centuries to come and the shorter-term breakthroughs could easily lead to a Nobel prize.