Imperial College is a hothouse for innovation – and its latest one, creating plastic from sugar, is indicative of the pioneering work that takes place over in South Kensington.
The new research project has identified a way to transform sugars found in fast growing trees and grasses into a polymer, that can be used to make plastic.
While there are plastics available today constructed from corn, they do not biodegrade quickly. The Imperial innovation would cut down on the use of oil, typically used to make plastic, and potentially enable people to compost plastic at home.
Plastics made from oil can take hundreds of years to decompose but the new material would break down in a matter of months. The sugar-based plastic could be on the shelves within five years.
Approximately seven per cent of worldwide oil and gas resources are consumed in plastics manufacture, with worldwide production exceeding 150 million tons per year. Almost 99 per cent of plastics are formed from fossil fuels.
The Imperial research extracts polymer from glucose found in trees and grasses. Since these plants are not needed for food and require much less land to make the amount of plastic needed, it would be much less controversial than growing crops for fuel in cars.
The process is also much less energy intensive than current methods of producing plastic. The new material is also better for the environment because it degrades quickly. Imperial is now focused on the next big challenge, how to scale up the process for the mass market. According to the college, the results are “very promising”. If they achieve a commercial product the final step will be regulatory approval.