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Seaweed could be used in future bioplastics, say researchers

By Joe Whitworth , 07-Aug-2012
Last updated on 07-Aug-2012 at 14:45 GMT

Seaweed could play a vital role in bioplastic packaging in the future, according to researchers.

Rajendran Narasimmalu et al identified seaweeds high biomass, its ability to grow in a wide range of environments and its cultivation in a natural environment as potential for it to serve as an alternative in bioplastic production for the packaging industry. 

Bioplastics from seaweeds would cost more than traditional methods but are reported to be more resistant to microwave radiation, less brittle and durable, the researchers said in the review into seaweed as an alternative source for bioplastic.

Writing in the Journal of Pharmacy Research, Narasimmalu et al said: “Seaweeds are best known for the natural polysaccharides that can be extracted from them which are widely used particularly in the fields of food technology, biotechnology, microbiology and even medicine but not yet in the plastic industry.

“Since they are renewable biomass resources and are polymers made from sugars which contain carbon, they could be used to create biodegradable and high quality bioplastics.

“Fermentation and genetic engineering can take the lead in using novel techniques to make bioplastics from seaweeds which would make them as a viable alternative.”

Current bioplastic methods 

Current methods of producing bioplastic involve plants, animals and microbial sources, but the researchers noted they have limitations.

The different types of plant sources are starch based like wheat, corn starch, rice, sweet potato, barley, sorghum and cellulose derivatives which account for almost 80% of the market, with thermoplastic starch the most widely used.

Bioplastic production from bacteria requires specific conditions for their cultivation, contamination, special apparatus and infrastructure.

The technology development for the seaweeds-based bioplastics are still under the research phase and it is hoped that significant advancements would be made in the bioplastics industries and can make seaweed bioplastics a reality in future.” 

Supply can match demand

Professor at VIT University, India, Rajendran Narasimmalule said seaweed is naturally available and it is easy to cultivate in large numbers. 

He noted Toyota is working on a car with the oil-based carbon fibre in the vehicle’s body being replaced with a seaweed based bioplastic and is likely to be released in to the market around 2015.

“Bio-plastics will take time to reach the level of demand, it is not easy and won’t be overnight but progress takes time to go from a pilot project to larger scale production.

“People are ready to pay a bit extra if the product protects the environment.”

The researchers concluded that bioplastics is in its infancy stage but holds significant promise in developing sustainable plastics for the future. 

Exploring the production of bioplastics could play a major role in shaping the economics and viability of seaweed based products.

“The technology routes for the production of seaweed based bioplastics are still under research and the use of biotechnological and genetic engineering techniques play a key role in conducting the feasibility and sustainability studies in seaweed based bioplastics.”

Source: Journal of Pharmacy Research

Volume 5, Issue 3, March 2012 pages 1476-1479

“Seaweeds can be a new source for bioplastics”

Authors: Rajendran, N., Sharanya Puppala, Sneha Raj M., Ruth Angeeleena B., and Rajam, C.

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