Chemists have developed a new range of fully biodegradable, non-toxic resins made from raw materials that are readily and cheaply available.
Because current synthetic resins are widely used in construction the new product could provide a commercially viable and environmentally sound alternative.
’The industry is very conservative and they will not go for something that is much more expensive than what they already have just because it is green. People like green but the industry doesn’t buy green stuff, they buy cheap stuff,’ said Professor Gadi Rothenberg who along with Albert Alberts developed the new resin at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Most plastic products for domestic or construction use consist of three-dimensional networks of cross-linked polymers.
Bakelite resin which is produced by reacting phenol with formaldehyde is used to bind wood fibres in pressed wood such as medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and formica.
Meanwhile, the resin of urea and formaldehyde is used for medium-density overlay (MDO), a combination of concrete and plywood, used in concrete moulds.
The discovery of the new resin was somewhat serendipitous: Rothenberg and Alberts were investigating biofuels when they inadvertently ended up with a polymerised resin that proved to have interesting properties.
By selecting the right raw materials and process conditions for the cross-linking reaction the scientists were able to make a range of bio-plastics ranging from hard foam material to flexible thin sheet materials.
While the precise mixture of raw materials is still under wraps, Rothenberg revealed that some come from a vegetable source.
’The big advantage that we have is that the materials are completely at one with the environment. There are no toxicity issues and no environmental issues.
’Imagine a piece of furniture, maybe a table in your office, made from MDF with a formica coating, when this piece of furniture gets thrown away you can’t even really burn it because the isocyanides that are realised are really very toxic. But if you made it with our resins, in principle you could just smash it, or burn it, or use it for energy.’
Rothenberg and Alberts are now at the stage of producing the material on a kilogram scale, before scaling up with the help of industrial partners.