University researchers make new discovery in plastics

Innovative method could remove current limitations, allows creation of new kind of biodegradable cellulose-based plastic

Currently, most bioplastics are produced using renewable biomass resources, such as vegetable fats, oils, and sweet potatoes, which readily decompose once they are buried in the ground. However, these materials lack the necessary strength and flexibility required to extend the life of plastics in the packaging and electronic industry.

To date, there have been limited successes in inventing new solvents to dissolve cellulose for commercialization usage. Also, the increase in toxicity associated with current dissolution techniques has made cellulose less attractive for use in the plastic industry. But, Tuskegee University researchers have discovered a new method that can be used to suspend tiny particles of cellulose in an organic solvent that is commonly used in the plastic industry. This technique could remove the current limitations and allow for the creation of a new kind of biodegradable cellulose-based plastic. This product can be used in the production of items ranging from packaging materials to plastic covers.

Dr. Michael L. Curry, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Associate Adjunct Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, along with his second-year graduate student, Donald H. White, both work as members of and in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (Phase II), a multi-institutional partnership devoted to investigating the fundamental molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems.

Taking full advantage of the new dispersion of cellulose technique, Curry and White experimented with the development of cellulose-based plastics using both biodegradable and non-biodegradable polymer matrices. Unlike earlier bio-based plastics, their cellulose-based plastics are flexible and show significant improvements in the storage modulus which demonstrates an increase in the rigidity and strength of the composite material.

Researchers Curry (right) and White (left) examine discovery.

Curry stated that given that the global production of plastics will exceed 300 million tons annually in the near future and greater than 98 percent of it is made with crude oil and other fossil fuels, this new invention will not only help us to meet our Center’s goal of “using fundamental chemistry to enable the development of nanotechnology in a sustainable manner, for societal benefits,” but will also limit the amount of non-biodegradable plastics ending up in our land fields and oceans, and the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by plastics that contribute to global climate change.

plasticsdiscov-pic2-2016“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.


Tuskegee University, press release, 2016-12-05.


National Science Foundation (USA)
Tuskegee University