University of Tartu scientists are developing bioplastics to replace fossil-based materials

  • 2020-07-05
  • Sandra Sommer

Scientists at the University of Tartu have started work on an international project aiming to develop a novel technology to produce eco-friendly plastics. Finding an alternative to oil-based plastics is one of the greatest challenges for scientists in the 21st century.

Widely used plastics are largely based on fossil fuels. This has caused significant environmental pollution and contributed to climate change. Furthermore, the recycling of plastic packaging is complicated as most packages are made from a mixture of different types of polymers. This crucial problem provides ample material for research to scientists all over the world.

The BioStyrene project, led by the University of Tartu, strives to work out options to replace the fossil-based styrene, which is widely used as a source material for plastics, by materials derived from wood biomass. As one solution, a part of the fossil styrene is replaced with wood-based lignin, which currently does not have many uses. The research also opens up new prospects for the timber industry, finding more use for lower-quality material or the residual product, lignin.

“Using wood for the production of novel materials considerably reduces the industry’s dependence on fossil-based plastics. For this reason, we have set the goal to find a solution that is also applicable in large-scale industry. To ensure comprehensive expertise, we have involved not only international researchers but also three private enterprises in the project,” said Lauri Vares, Senior Research Fellow in Organic Chemistry at the Institute of Technology, University of Tartu. “We have also reached the first important results – we have established that in paints, styrene can be successfully replaced by an alternative produced from biomass. Furthemore, such bio-paints, could even have better properties than the currently used paints,” Vares added.

The BioStyrene project (ER30) is co-financed by the Estonia–Russia cross-border cooperation programme 2014–2020. Other participants in the project led by the Institute of Technology of the University of Tartu are St Petersburg State Forest Technical University, and the enterprises Vapa, Plastpolymer (Russia) and TBD Biodiscovery (Estonia). The total cost of the project is €586,987, incl. funding from the Estonia–Russia cross-border cooperation programme, €437,617.

The Estonia–Russia cross-border cooperation programme 2014–2020 aims to foster cross-border cooperation between the Republic of Estonia and the Russian Federation to promote socio-economic development in the regions on both sides of the border. The programme website can be found at www.estoniarussia.eu.