Why make plastic from petroleum and fossil fuels when they can be made from plants and bio-based materials?

Plastic waste remains a huge problem, one that WSU researchers are working on, but other research across the country looks at alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics.

WSU collaborates with Iowa State University on the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2) on developing high-value biobased products from agricultural and forestry feedstocks. The WSU Composite Materials and Engineering Center provides expertise in renewable resources to develop those novel bio-based polymers, chemicals, and composites.

The work at WSU has been underway for a while. In 2015, WSU researchers developed a catalyst that easily converts bio-based ethanol to a widely used industrial chemical, setting the stage for bio-based plastics and products. Yong Wang, Voiland Distinguished Professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering with a joint appointment in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, led the team.

The chemical industry has traditionally made a widely used chemical called isobutene by superheating crude oil. Isobutene is used in everything from plastic soda bottles to rubber tires. Wang and his colleagues developed a catalyst to convert bio-based ethanol, which is made from corn or other biomass, to isobutene in one easy production step.

In collaboration with the Archer Daniels Midland Company and with a grant from the Department of Energy, the researchers examined the practicality of their catalyst for the marketplace and determined that it could be used for other closely related feedstocks. They also discovered just how their catalyst works, knowledge that could be used to design more efficient catalysts for a wide range of applications.

A research team in 2014 also found a new way to use plant oils like olive, canola, grape seed, linseed and castor oils to create polyurethane, a plastic material used in everything from foam insulation panels to tires, hoses and sealants.

While there are already some polyurethanes made from plant materials, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering researchers developed a novel method that uses vegetable oils to create materials with a wide variety of flexibility, stiffness and shapes.

Meanwhile, led by site director and civil engineering professor Vik Yadama, WSU and CB2 continue to work with industry to develop fundamental knowledge of bioplastics and biocomposites, while developing new bio-based products that could replace plastics generated from fossil fuels.