Jeremy Luterbacher’s PET-like plastic made of plant by-products

Jeremy Luterbacher from EPFL’s Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing has developed a way to turn plant by-products into materials that could serve as an alternative to some types of plastic.

“It must be because I’m a chemist, but I find functionalization reactions fascinating. They involve adding a functional group to a chemical compound in order to give it additional properties, but without changing its base structure. I find them very elegant. And since they don’t entail changing the base structure, these reactions are fairly easy to perform and consume little energy and other resources. You don’t have to first break down complicated chains.

In conducting our research, we found that some types of sugar are particularly well-suited to functionalization reactions. One sugar – xylose – is ideal, and plant residue contains a lot of it: some 20–30% of plant matter consists of xylose. Using functionalization reactions, we can produce 300 grams of our bioplastic out of one kilogram of corn cobs (without the kernels).


A wide range of applications

Our process for producing bioplastic from xylose has the advantage of being simple to carry out and it employs materials that are readily available. It doesn’t alter the base xylose molecules, meaning that as the bioplastic degrades, it simply releases the sugar – which is already found in nature and therefore harmless to the environment.

What’s more, our material has a wide range of possible properties and applications. We can manufacture it as a film, as thread for making fabric or fishing nets, or rolled up in spools for use with 3D printers. We can also make polyesters and polyamides such as nylon with excellent properties, sometimes even better than those of petroleum-based products. Food packaging could be another application, but we still need to go through the various certification processes.


This is just the beginning

Of course, to get our bioplastic on the market we need to be able to manufacture it at a competitive cost. But our estimates show that’s possible. We need to get to a cost that’s half that of existing bioplastics, or in other words, on par with petroleum-based plastics.

The leaf I’m showing here illustrates the vast potential for our bioplastic. You can see that it allows for extreme precision for producing objects of all kinds. We’re only at the beginning of our journey and still have a lot of work ahead of us, both in the research lab and with Bloom Biorenewables, a startup we founded to market the technology coming out of our lab. But that makes our work all the more exciting!”