[ASC-media] Media release: bio-plastics offer new hope for sugar

CRCA Media crca-media at starclass.com.au
Tue Mar 9 03:47:57 EST 2004

CRCA Media Release	04/11

March 9, 2004		 


Scientists predict there will be a brighter future for Australia's hard-hit sugar industry as it becomes a producer of bio-plastics.

Bio-plastics are just one of a number of diversification opportunities for the sugar industry, according to researchers from of the Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB). 

"Every household will be using bio-degradable plastic bags, bottles and containers, every car will have bio-degradable plastic dashboards and fittings, fine clothing will be crafted from these biopolymers to replace petrochemical plastic and nylon with bio-nylons and bio-fabrics all made from renewable resources," says the CRC's Dr Steve Brumbley.

Dr Brumbley says that research being carried out by the CRC is building on an already proven process for making plastics from sucrose, needing only a minor shift in economics for the process to become a market leader.  In this lies Australia's opportunity, he says.

"There's hardly an area of modern life which will not be using products derived directly from sugar cane," says Dr Brumbley. "And when the product has reached the end of its working life, it will go straight into the compost heap to feed a new generation of plants."

Australia's cane farmers can look forward to the recognition of sugar cane as one of the most versatile and sought-after agricultural products, he says.

Dr Brumbley says that the sugar industry, especially in Australia, suffers periodic declines linked to world market conditions, because it has a very limited product range, compared with the dairy industry for example.

"From one basic product, the dairy industry creates more than a hundred marketable items, and has become one of Australia's leading export industries," says Dr Brumbley. 

"By contrast, the sugar industry produces just four: sugar, molasses, alcohol, and bagasse (waste matter)."  However, in the future, sugar will be seen as the carbon source for materials and energy production.  Australia will capitalise on this only if the sugar industry survives the period of transition.

This transition phase will take a decade or so to optimise the science, and build the infrastructure to get the industry from a sucrose based industry to a sugarcane industry producing lots of new products.  The production of ethanol could create the breathing space to make this transition.  

"In the future we could be producing not just sucrose, ethanol, energy (burning bagasse), and molasses, but a whole range of bio-polymers with a vast array of properties, not the least of which is biodegradability. This will greatly reduce the impact of world price fluctuations on our producers," he says. 

It could also change rural economies.  As the sugar industry starts producing new biopolymers, sugar mills will become the hub for a range of manufacturing industries making the new products to feed into the growing Asian markets.  Industries will be attracted to this source of raw materials to convert them into the range of plastics required by the automotive, electronics, household goods, fabrics and even the carpet industries.  These will be clean green industries using renewable resources.

Dr Brumbley says that research into the production of polymers by the fermentation of sucrose - the juice of the sugar cane - has attracted enormous interest from the world's major manufacturers of plastics and nylon. Some synthetics manufacturers have already replaced production of petrochemical plastics like nylon with plastics derived from high fructose corn syrup. 

"They are fermenting the high fructose corn syrup to produce polymeric compounds  which can be made into a wide range of products including fabrics which are entirely produced from living renewable resources: fabrics which touch not only touch the body but touch the soul.

"At today's prices, polymers derived from sugar are slightly more expensive than petrochemical polymers," he says. "However, as Asian countries come on line as major players in the industrial world, we will see a time in the near future when the demand for petroleum outstrips the supply and the economics of petro-chemical production will rapidly change. 

"This will create a demand for alternative products for the various plastics currently produced from petrochemicals.  Production of bio-polymers from the 'oil wells' of the future - sugar producing plants - will take the front seat in this revolution which will drive the economies of the 21st century." 

These clean green technologies will help reduce our dependency on petrochemicals, replace nonbiodegradable plastics with biodegradeable one, and reduce green house emissions.

Dr Brumbley says that the focus of his research is in the improvement by molecular biology of the sugar cane plant itself, so that a new strain of cane will better able to meet the demand for sugar as a 'bio-factory'.

"Sucrose is available in quantity, and can be readily fermented to produce polymers," he says. "What is less well appreciated is that the whole sugar cane plant - not just the juice - can be turned into plastic.

"Bagasse contains sixty per cent cellulose, long chains of sugars, the basics feedstock for production of bio-polymers," he says. "Using both the sugars in the cellulose biomass and the readily available sucrose as feedstock either for fermentation or by engineering the plants themselves a wide range of new and valuable products from the sugarcane industry."

Dr Brumbley notes that United States Government predictions suggest that the price of petrochemicals will become radically higher within the next three decades, and that it has become US policy to replace petrochemicals with biomass as a primary source of polymers to replace the current array of plastics.

This research serves National Research Priorities One (an Environmentally Sustainable Australia) and Three (Frontier Technologies for Building and Transforming Australian Industries).

Dr Brumbley says that commercial production of bio-polymers is a reality in some overseas countries, and that a market already exists for such products derived from Australian sugarcane.

More information:
Dr Stevens Brumbley, CRC SIIB					07 3331 3370 bus.
									07 3814 0416 ah
sbrumbley at bses.org.au
Dr Peter Twine, CRC SIIB						07 3365 7502
Julian Cribb, CRCA media						0418 639 245


More information about the ASC-media mailing list