Australian research centre is plotting a greener future for plastics

1 August 2023 | Muriel Cozier

Demand for bioplastics and biocomposites is on the rise, and regions where the feedstock and resources are plentiful are looking to refine their offerings and meet the growing need for greener plastics.

To this end the Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites was officially opened last month. The focus of the centre is to capitalise on the country’s substantial bio-resources to develop bio-derived and biodegradable composites and plastics.

How best to utilise resources

‘One of our four research themes is bio resource transformation,’ said Associate Professor Steven Pratt, Director ARC Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites. ‘The development of a commercially viable bioplastics industry in Australia requires consideration of the interrelationships between feedstocks, technologies, applications and markets.’

Along with bio resource transformation, the centre will also look at bioplastic manufacture. ‘Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) can be produced from a range of organic materials. The aim of one of the projects at the Centre is to produce PHA from both cane sugars and fermented organic wastes, and to understand the opportunity for a more efficient supply chain in this space,’ Pratt added.

Taking a multidisciplinary approach

The Centre is a collaborative project, led by the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology, with the Australian Research Centre investing A$4.9 million over five years. Academic and industry partners are making cash and in-kind contributions to the A$13 million centre. Along with its research on green plastics, the Centre will train a cohort of experts in biotechnology for bioplastic production, polymer engineering for material development, behavioural science for product uptake, and environmental science for end-of-life considerations.

‘The centre was funded through the highly competitive ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centres Scheme, which provides funding for partnerships between university-based researchers and those in industry for industries which are vital to Australia’s future,’ explained Dr Lisa Pope, Centre Manager. The collaborative and multidisciplinary aspect is a vital part of the centre's development. ‘We are truly transdisciplinary, covering chemical and materials engineering, polymer chemistry, environmental science, social science, policy and business,’ Dr Pope said.

The clock is ticking

Over the next five years the Centre is set to be a hive of activity with plans for delivering advances in technology, establishing links between leading research groups and partner organisations, as well as educating, commercialising IP and addressing the important area of developing standards and regulations.

‘‘‘Biodegradable’ is being used in product descriptions for its ‘green’ appeal,’ says Pratt, ‘But the term is largely unregulated in Australia. There is no industry acceptable criteria that needs to be met. The Centre plans for impact here through discussion papers and membership on advisory committees to assist the government regulate this space.’

Along with the science and industry focus, the Centre will also play a role providing wider education on bioplastics. ‘This Centre is aiming to inform a rapidly growing eco-conscious market of the sustainability of bioplastics in terms of their lifetime in natural and engineered environments,’ Associate Professor Pratt added.

While the ARC Training Centre for Bioplastics and Biocomposites has recently come into being, Associate Professor Pratt says that a strategic plan is being put in place ‘for the back-end of the Centre’s lifetime.’

‘At this stage, the plans for commercialisation of intellectual property associated with bio resource development for bioplastic production, and with novel bioplastic products and applications [have a number of strands], these being: developing bio resource for bioplastic manufacture, this could involve bringing together key stakeholders from the public and private sectors to facilitate investment infrastructure for pilot plant and demonstration plants. For some novel products and applications this may involve licence agreements with manufacturers, while for others this could involve the creation of a spinoff company.’ Associate Professor Pratt said.

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