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Down-under researchers aim to make plastic from sugar plant waste

By: Kate Tilley

April 25, 2013

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — Researchers at an Australian university hope to turn plant waste into wads of cash.

Researchers at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), a specialist unit at the Brisbane-based University of Queensland, are investigating an additional use for sugar cane plants.

Typically, sugar cane juice for sugar production is derived from the stem and the plant’s leaves are discarded. But AIBN researchers are examining how they can use the leaves to produce bioplastics.

AIBN Systems and Synthetic Biology Group business manager Robert Speight said: “The leaves are known as sugar cane trash; a waste product. They are typically burnt or just left on the field.”

AIBN researchers are developing ways to use the leaves to engineer a bioplastic.

“The concept is that we have to take advantage of as much of our natural resources as possible and try to add value to parts of plants that would not normally be used. The research is delivering promising results,” Speight said.

Australia has more than 4,000 cane farms, mostly on the east coast, produce up to 35 million tons of cane annually which, when processed, produces about 4.5 million tons of sugar. It is an A$2 billion a year industry.

Under the leadership of Professor Lars Nielsen, the AIBN researchers are also developing ways to make sustainable banknotes and other polypropylene products from bioderived feedstocks. Nielsen received Australian Research Council funding of A$478,284 and has begun work with Altona, Victoria-based Dow Chemical (Australia) Ltd. on a three-year project to develop bioderived feedstocks.

“The chemical industry recognizes limited supply and a need to reduce carbon emissions,” Nielsen said. “Microbes can produce green chemicals but efficiencies are often low. This project will develop microbes and improve the fermentative processes for producing plastic precursors from sugar cane.”