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Wood fibers make plastics stronger, more biodegradable

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 by: Jerome Douglas
Tags: plastics, biodegradable products, health news

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(NewsTarget) Cellulose derived from wood may be able to be developed into a component that can strengthen plastic, which would mean the production of plastic products that are lightweight and durable, but also biodegradable.

The key to this process rests in the technique of extracting nanocrystals of cellulose from things like trees or orange pulp, which is then mixed with plastics. Researchers at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry say "By adding an ounce of crystals to a pound of plastic, you can increase the strength of the plastic by a factor of 3,000."

These cellulose nanocrystals can also be used in ceramics formation, and even in biomedical applications such as artificial joints and disposable medical equipment. The challenge researchers have is to continue refining the crystals so that they adhere better to the plastic itself.

The new research was led by chemistry professor William Winter, who says the product can also be recycled easily: "In the end, in a landfill, it's just carbon dioxide and water, which can be taken up and made into more biomass." The term "biomass" refers to any biologically derived material.

The process researched by Winter and his team provides another use for the 1 billion tons of biomass produced annually in the United States, according to an estimate from the U.S. departments of energy and agriculture. Winter said that "All plant materials contain a minimum of 25 percent cellulose ... but wood from trees is a little higher, between 40 percent and 50 percent." This indicates why trees specifically -- as a source of cellulose -- were central in Winter's research.

Inventors have been particularly interested in developing natural substitutes for synthetic materials, and cellulose research regarding the integration into plastic production is not new as a concept. However, Winter's team has uncovered new possibilities in its enhanced research, which has been funded thus far by various U.S. government departments in addition to Eastman Chemical Co.

With cellulose providing an attractive addition to plastic production, the material has also been used to produce cloth that replaces a rather expensive clothing component -- silk.


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