British-Israeli team to harden biodegradable plastic

Scientists at Bath University and Tel Aviv University are working on a project to improve the properties of plastics made from plants.

Poly(lactic acid) or PLA is a type of biodegradable plastic that can be made from renewable plant sources such as corn, wheat or sugar. It is currently used in bottles, bags and films, and can be woven into fibres to make clothes in place of polyester.

The scientists at Bath and Tel Aviv are developing a new chemical catalyst to improve the process of making these plastics, making them stronger and more heat resistant so they can be used for a wider range of objects such as engineering plastics for the automotive industry, microwavable trays and cups for hot drinks.

Prof Matthew Davidson, Whorrod Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the Bath University and director of the university’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, said: ‘PLA can be made up of two types of building blocks that are mirror images of each other. Using the current technology, when the plastic is made with both types present they are jumbled together within the structure of the plastic.

‘This new project will develop a selective catalyst that will build up a polymer of “left-handed” and “right-handed” building blocks in a structured order so that we can control the physical properties of the resulting plastic.’

The project is one of 10 joint British-Israeli research projects that tackle global challenges in energy and the environment that have been selected to receive funding through the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership, BIRAX.