13 July 2021
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have created a polymer film made from 100% plant protein that requires no chemical additives – and they claim it has comparable functionality to conventional plastics.
Made entirely from plant protein which can be sourced as a by-product of the agriculture industry, the company that is set to commercialise the solution, Xampla, says that the resulting material can be disposed of in nature after use like any natural waste, leaving no pollutants behind.
Importantly, the company also claims that the material’s functionality is consistent with conventional plastic, but it requires no chemical cross-linking used in many bio-polymers to give them the strength and flexibility of plastic.
Research, which has been published in the Nature Communications scientific journal, reportedly shows how scientists were able to naturally assemble plant proteins so that the final structure was very similar to spider silk. The researchers say that this “breakthrough” is the first time these structures have been seen in a material that derives from plant protein.
Xampla hopes that the technology, which utilises a process involving acetic acid, water, ultrasonication, and heat, can replace single-use plastics including flexible packaging films, sachets, microcapsules found in home and personal care products, and carrier bags.
The scientists behind this innovation were inspired by spiders’ silk, which is weight-for-weight stronger than steel but has weak molecular bonds, meaning it can break down easily. They sought to understand the building blocks of this natural phenomenon, with the aim of creating a material with the same molecular properties.
Professor Tuomas Knowles, who led the research, said: “One of the key breakthroughs is that we can supply this product on a large scale, and it can replace plastic in very specific applications. We have proved it’s possible to solve the single-use plastics problem.”
Dr. Marc Rodriguez Garcia, Xampla’s head of research, added: “It’s amazing to realise that a discovery you make in a lab can have a big impact on solving a global problem. That’s essentially why we are doing this – we really love the science, but we also wanted to do something meaningful about solving the overwhelming problem of plastic waste.”