banner ad

Tobacco and Alternative Plastics: New Materials for a Changing World

December 11, 2020 |

by John Capetanos

Of all the plants you’d think to be targeted for replacing the presence of plastics, tobacco doesn’t immediately come to mind. Yet tobacco has emerged as an early standout in the search to find a reliable alternative to commonly used plastics and synthetic woods.

For bioengineers working on these new substances, tobacco is an attractive crop for a couple of reasons: The plant grows very fast, is easily cared for and has a wealth of knowledgeable growers and producers to guarantee access to healthy plants with desirable qualities.

To manufacture new bio-based materials with properties relevant to engineering applications, the tobacco plant can be utilized at the cellular level, overcoming the need to grow the whole plant. Eleftheria Roumeli, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering working at the University of Washington, describes these cells as using the “equivalent of stem cells.” These cells from the plants are in a pristine state and therefore offer a “uniform” biomass with the same features and composition (similar levels of cellulose in the biomass) as opposed to a whole plant where cells are specialized into different types that are necessary to perform different functions. They have different shapes and nonuniform distribution of composition throughout the whole plant.

The fact that it doesn’t require any sort of glue is another point in its favor, explains Roumeli. “It has many structural applications in order to create wood-based products. A bonding agent is required to glue the wood particles together. This is, usually, a nondegradable petrochemical-derived adhesive. We are also currently studying if our bio-based material could find applications in packaging, and generally, we will be looking to see which applications that are currently served from traditional plastics and engineered woods could be suitable for our fully bio-based materials.”

In its current state, however, there is still a long way to go before these materials reach large-scale application, mainly related to the manufacturing cost. “And since the material development is still in its early stages, not much is known about how much it will take to manufacture products on the large-scale with it,” says Roumeli. “Further studies and testing [are] required as we are not at factory-level, large-scale production. This could have major impacts on how the material is used.”

Despite the lack of factory production, Roumeli can already see potential uses even without large-scale production. “In specialized engineering applications where lightweight composites are required and biodegradability is desired, singular applications of these materials can give solutions, like for customized packaging for example,” she says. “Sports equipment as well remains a strong candidate due to the willingness to bear higher costs for higher efficiency.”

Industries well suited for limited forms of production, like biomedical, will benefit from these new tobacco biocomposites whether or not production limits the manufacturing of more common items like bottles, plastic models and toys.

These tobacco bioplastics are more environmentally efficient, requiring less unrenewable resources to produce. Additionally, they break down an initial 14-week incubation period rather than the seemingly endless time it takes traditional plastics to break down, if at all.

Growers stand to gain from the production of tobacco-based biocomposites even now as researchers are creating a larger biocomposites “portfolio” and tobacco plants may provide an alternative biomass for this research. Should production be feasible, an increasing number of plants would be needed as more and more industries begin to switch over.

“It’s a cross-disciplinary approach. All the involved fields of materials engineering—biology, bioresource management, chemical and mechanical engineering—are having discussions on how to combine their knowledge because this is a necessary thing,” says Roumeli. “We cannot keep relying on petroleum plastics for a sustainable future.”

Category: featured, Magazine

About the Author ()

Comments are closed.