They look a little like fake cookies, the kind you’d find in a child’s toy oven, but the chocolate brown plastic discs created by University of Alberta researcher David Bressler and his lab represent the future of ingenious recycling.
Using the throwaway parts of beef carcasses that were sidelined from the value-added production process after bovine spongiform encephalopathy devastated the industry in 2003, Bressler, an associate professor in the U of A’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science has collaborated with industry, government and other researchers to forge cattle proteins into heavy-duty plastics that could soon be used in everything from car parts to CD cases.
The University of Alberta is the only post-secondary facility to be approved by the Canada Food Inspection Agency to conduct research involving turning high-risk proteins into safe, sustainable materials. By finding a way to convert these animal byproducts into plastics for industrial use, Bressler and his team, which also includes Phillip Choi, a professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering, hope to divert tonnes of protein waste from landfills across North America, shift to using renewable resources instead of petrochemicals to make plastics, and boost flagging profit levels in the cattle industry.
Beef producers took an economic hit when byproducts such as blood and bone were regulated out of the rendering process after BSE was found in Canada, for fear the material contained deadly prions—infectious proteins that cause BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease. “If we can get more fundamental value back into the rendering process, it will help the livestock industry more than any government policy,” Bressler says.
A patent has been filed on the thermal process used to turn protein from bovine byproducts into plastics. Using high temperatures, the proteins are broken into small pieces then cross-linked to other protein molecules to create a network that forms a rigid structure.
The new plastics from Bressler’s lab are currently being tested by The Woodbridge group, a car parts manufacturer. Current funding is focused on research that further experiments with the product, to see if the plastics can be mixed with renewable fibres such as hemp. If successful, the resulting bio-composite material could be used in high-strength materials such as building structural supports.
The bio-friendly plastics, though still in the development stage, are poised to become an innovative addition to the manufacturing industry, Bressler believes. “The plastic industry is under pressure to increase the renewable content in its products. As a result, this project offers the opportunity to do just that, and at the same time help send value back to rural Alberta and the beef sector.”
Bressler’s work is supported by the Alberta Prion Research Institute, PrioNet Canada and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.
Universtity of Alberta, press release, 2011-08-12.