Tuskegee researchers solve cellulose bioplastics challenge

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In Alabama, Tuskegee University researchers have discovered a cellulose dispersion method that could help bioplastics overcome some of the performance issues that limit its use in applications such as packaging and electronics.

Bioplastics are typically made from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats, oils, and sweet potatoes. While these materials decompose readily, they can fall short of the strength and flexibility some uses require.

Cellulose holds promise for creating stronger bioplastics, but often the solvents needed to process the material are too toxic to attract commercial interest. Dr. Michael L. Curry, an Associate Professor in Tuskegee University’s Department of Chemistry and Associate Adjunct Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, along with graduate student Donald H. White, developed a technique that can suspend cellulose in an organic solvent already employed by the plastics industry. The two then used the method to create cellulose-based plastics in both biodegradable and non-biodegradable matrices with more rigidity and strength.

“This discovery will allow us to develop new and better plastic products, use plastic resources more efficiently and create products that have a low impact on the environment, thus reducing our ecological footprint,” Curry said.

The work was carried out in partnership with the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (Phase II).