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Scientists “open the door” to fossil-fuel free plastic

A group of US scientists may have made a major breakthrough which could pave the way for fossil-fuel free plastic production.

The researchers at Ohio State University stumbled across the discovery by mistake while they were growing and observing different types of bacteria in a lab to understand what would happen if they did not have access to sulphur, which they need to live.

They noticed the germs, among other gases released, included ethylene which is used as the starting point in the production of almost all plastics. To source ethylene, manufacturers currently use components of crude oil or natural gas that are extracted through an energy-intensive processes.

Robert Tabita, senior author of the study said, “it was a result we could not predict in a million years. This isn’t the first time that some bacteria have been found to produce ethylene, but the process normally requires oxygen to work which is a problem.”

“Oxygen plus ethylene is explosive, and that is a major hurdle for using it in manufacturing,” she added. “But the bacterial system we discovered to produce ethylene works without oxygen and that gives us a significant technological advantage.”

Justin North, who led the research said: “We may have cracked a major technological barrier to producing a large amount of ethylene gas that could replace fossil fuel sources in making plastics.”

“There’s still a lot of work to do to develop these strains of bacteria to produce industrially significant quantities of ethylene gas. But this opens the door.”

It is still very much early days for the research, with the team only studying the process in the lab so far. But with the discovery of this new natural source of an important building block for plastics, the researchers hope that it could lead to more environmentally friendly forms of plastics production that do away with fossil fuels entirely.

Ethylene is an important plant hormone but in large volumes can be harmful to planet growth. Kelly Wrighton, co-author and associate professor of soil and crop science at Colorado State University, said “this newly discovered pathway may shed light on many previously unexplained environmental phenomena, including the large amounts of ethylene that accumulates to inhibitory levels in waterlogged soils, causing extensive crop damage.”

Responding, North added: “Now that we know how it happens, we may be able to circumvent or treat these problems so that ethylene doesn’t accumulate in soils when flooding occurs.”

The findings are reported in the journal Science.

Take action

The amount of plastic reaching the oceans each year is about 11 million tonnes, according to a paper published in the journal Science.

But this plastic which we use unthinkingly every single day, which we throw away without a moment’s thought, lives on and on. It ends up in the oceans where it is killing our marine life, the planet and, slowly but surely, us.

Plastic waste flowing into the oceans is expected to nearly triple in volume in the next 20 years, while efforts to stem the tide have so far made barely a dent in the tsunami of waste.

Action must be taken now before it is too late.

Governments need to make drastic cuts to the flow of plastic reaching the oceans through measures such as restricting the sale and use of plastic materials, and mandating alternatives. Industries moreover must adopt circular economies whereby old plastics are reintegrated into the production system with no waste.

As consumers, we have the power to stop this and save our oceans, our planet and ourselves. Find out more by clicking on the icons below.

 

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