Science breathes life into polymers

Often, folks consider man-made, laboratory-bound materials to be strictly lifeless objects. Under these terms, a plastic has more in common with quartz than it does with a carrot. But that concept has been changing – now, those lab-based substances are as likely to be composed of bio-compounds as anything else. As such, a number of new opportunities are available to researchers, developers and organizations.

"A number of new bio-based polymer opportunities are available."

As scientists incorporate new biological chemicals and properties into polymers, they are able to utilize naturally occurring enzymes and compounds that may hold specific benefits. These traits go beyond allowing materials to safely biodegrade, although that is certainly a notable advantage. Rather, certain bio-based polymers can produce different degrees of conductivity, flexibility, durability and so on.

Bio-based polymers field set to expand

All of the new growth in the realm of bio-based polymers should have a positive impact on the market. A recent report from Grand View Research found that the overall bio-polymer market will expand over the next five years, reported Whatech. Some of that growth is the result of lower petrochemical prices, but a large portion is due to shifting consumer demand. As it turns out, people are more interested in buying and using products that feature polymers made from biological compounds as opposed to their traditional counterparts.

The expansion is set to occur worldwide, with Asia-Pacific and South America leading the way. Both regions have easier access to feedstock than North America and Europe. Asia Pacific also has higher demand for natural polymers and easier regulations to navigate, while South America's industrialization process makes it a clear candidate for a growing market.

From the potato battery to the potato polymer
In the classic potato clock, the spud functions as a bridge between a zinc anode and a copper cathode, according to Teach Engineering. The acid in the potato engenders a reaction between the two metals and creates an electrical charge. Now, the potato has found itself in the center of another science project – but one that's a few steps beyond the grade school science fair.

A team of researchers from Faculty of Engineering of Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia have analyzed the ways a new polymer made from potato starch may be used as conductors, reported While most polymers lack electro activity and thereby function as insulators, using bio-based polymers for electrical transfer is a relatively new possibility.

The team chose starch as the novel material for its ubiquity in plant matter – something that could play a major role in its implementation down the line. Potatoes, specifically, offered the group favorable physical attributes and a degree of precedence. The films created from potato starch are soft and flexible and have applications in several industrial fields, where they have shown solid mechanical properties. Plus, those starch films had a higher degree of conductivity than their counterparts, like corn starch, and could be made more conductive through the addition of ammonium salt.

This research has yet to prove that potato starch will replace other conductors in mechanical and electrical industrial applications, but so far the results have been promising. At the very least, the team has shown that such usage could be a possibility.

Who knew a spud would mean so much to science?Who knew a spud would mean so much to science?

Paints get greener, figuratively speaking
The use of bio-based polymers may also have major environmental applications, drawing resources away from the current fossil-fuel heavy creation of many industrial plastics and rubbers, according to ICIS. One such derivative is paint, which has undergone growing pressure from consumer and agencies to curb its environmental impact. Bio-materials can give paint producers a chance to comply with those demands while also gaining other advantages in the process.

There is plenty of precedent for the use of organic compounds for paints and coatings. Since the industry's early years, organic oils, waxes and gum have remained important ingredients.

"Interest in newer renewable technologies is therefore not only driven by the need to meet well-defined sustainability agendas, but also by the knowledge the bio-based raw materials can provide improved coating performance," Ludo Hart de Ruijter, industry director for coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers at Corbion, told ICIS.

New bio-paints are not just more tolerable to consumers and governing bodies, they also make for better paints. One industry expert maintained that bio-based paints have performed as well as or better than their petroleum-based competitors. With that said, these newly-introduced bio-products are not yet produced at a wide enough scale to keep up with the increasing demand. Stricter regulations might force manufacturers to produce more commercial bio-paints. Additionally, the perceptions around bio-paint performance are slowly changing.

"[T]here also has been a misperception that such raw materials, being biologically-derived, are unstable, sensitive to environmental challenges, and hard to work with. All of these perceptions have gradually given way to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary," Steve McDaniel, chief technology officer of Reactive Surfaces, explained to ICIS. "For instance, [consumers] seem quite willing to pay more for a self-cleaning cell phone screen coating than they already do for one that merely prevents scratching of the glass screen."

With all of these changes and others yet to come, bio-based polymers have officially arrived. But as with all polymers – bio-based and otherwise – a third-party analytical laboratory should provide a thorough test to guarantee safety and performance.