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11 April 2016

Plastic in a Sustainable Society: programme award

Mistra’s Board has decided to put a research group based at Lund University in charge of the ‘Plastic in a Sustainable Society’ programme.

     Christopher Folkeson Welch, Programmes Director at Mistra: ‘The hope is that they’ll develop bioplastics with properties similar to those of the present day that are also carbon-neutral.’

The world is inundated with plastic, both in visible, usable form and broken down into microscopic particles in our environment. Since most types in existence today are produced from fossil raw materials, they end up making global warming worse. Mistra is therefore starting a programme aimed at developing better alternatives.

‘We need plastics in many different contexts. The petroleum-based kinds available today have numerous advantages, both price-wise and in their scope for application in a huge range of functions. We want to pass on these characteristics to new materials with better environmental profiles,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch.

At its regular meeting in mid-March, Mistra’s Board decided to entrust responsibility for the new programme to a research group known as STEPS (Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways), with Lund University as host. For the four-year programme period, they will have SEK 60 million, including SEK 45m from Mistra, at their disposal.

The three proposals submitted were examined in detail by an international evaluation panel. All three were judged both interesting and of good quality, but STEPS was finally selected. This application was deemed to be the strongest while also best matching the specifications listed in the text of the call.

STEPS’ objective is to develop plastics based on biobased raw materials in one form or another. In Sweden the forests are a conceivable source of raw materials, while in other parts of the world farm products or algae might be used.

‘Another option is to use carbon dioxide as a raw material — and not only for plastic but as a general input material for the chemical industry. The disadvantage is that extracting the carbon from the gas takes a great deal of energy. So the challenge is to develop efficient methods based on renewable energy. System thinking is therefore just as important as technological development.’

 If captured CO2 were possible to use as a raw material for the plastics of the future, there would be a double gain. First, atmospheric carbon emissions would decrease. Second, plastics could thereby serve as a carbon sink.

Another challenge will be to find the best ways of producing the new plastics. Today, the big plastics manufacturers have invested huge sums in their facilities. To facilitate the transition to new raw materials, being able to manufacture the new plastics with existing equipment is therefore important. Another key area for the programme is finding out whether there are alternatives to current additives, which in many cases are both toxic and harmful to the environment.

In its application, the project group behind STEPS identified three different areas or stages of work. The first is to develop an environment-friendly, competitive technology based on green chemistry. The second is to devise new plastics with desired properties that are also recyclable. The third stage is to develop industrial strategies for long-term sustainability.

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