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Earth Science

"Liquid Wood" a Contender To Replace Plastic 226

Posted by kdawson
from the no-more-starving-bacteria dept.
Ostracus recommends a Christian Science Monitor piece on the 40-year quest to find a replacement for non-biodegradable plastic. One candidate, written off 20 years back but now developed to the point of practicality, is a formulation based on the lignin found in wood. And it turns out there is another strong environmental reason to put lignin to use in this way: burning it, which is its common fate today, releases the carbon dioxide that trees had sequestered. "Almost 40 years ago, American scientists took their first steps in a quest to break the world's dependence on plastics. But in those four decades, plastic products have become so cheap and durable that not even the forces of nature seem able to stop them. A soupy expanse of plastic waste — too tough for bacteria to break down — now covers an estimated 1 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. ...[R]esearchers started hunting for a substitute for plastic's main ingredient, petroleum. They wanted something renewable, biodegradable, and abundant enough to be inexpensive."
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"Liquid Wood" a Contender To Replace Plastic

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:15PM (#26860127)

    Is like calling ethanol "liquid grain." There's a big difference between being derived from a given substance and having the properties of that substance.

    Not that this isn't nice and all, but picking science fiction-ish titles for things keeps you from being taken seriously.

    • by ptx0 (1471517) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:17PM (#26860141)
      Also, they have pills to fix this now.
    • Is like calling ethanol "liquid grain." There's a big difference between being derived from a given substance and having the properties of that substance.

      Not that this isn't nice and all, but picking science fiction-ish titles for things keeps you from being taken seriously.

      Don't read the news much anymore, huh?

    • by Chabil Ha' (875116) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @10:01PM (#26860391)

      Not only that, but the biodegradability of such a substance is over-played as well. Take a drive down to the local landfill, dig down quite a bit and you will find that many biodegradable substances that have been there for 20+ years have not really biodegraded at all. This is caused by the fact that the biodegradability of a substance is often dependent on the oxygen available to organisms to breakdown the substance. Thus, if you pack the trash too tightly, you create an anaerobic environment where organisms are less efficient at breaking things down.

      What we really need is a better method of disposal, not necessarily creating new kinds of substances.

      • by WalksOnDirt (704461) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @10:28PM (#26860507)

        ...dig down quite a bit and you will find that many biodegradable substances that have been there for 20+ years have not really biodegraded at all

        If these substances contain much carbon, that sounds like a good thing from a global warming perspective. Maybe we should change our goals and embrace this.

        • by Firethorn (177587)

          That's one of the arguments against recycling paper. In most areas for effective recycling you spend so much energy transporting and treating it that it's much cheaper and better for the environment to put it in a landfill.

          Or even burn it to do something useful to heat somewhere or run a power plant.

      • by tompaulco (629533)
        Thus, if you pack the trash too tightly, you create an anaerobic environment where organisms are less efficient at breaking things down.

        What we really need is a better method of disposal

        Ironically, a better method of disposal environmentally would be to toss it out the window. But that is frowned upon for other reasons.
      • by giorgist (1208992)
        Biodegradable is a scam. You will still find meat on the bone of a chicken 50 years if you pack it in an anaerobic environment.

        As for plastics there are thousands of different types. I doubt your liquid wood can cater for them in any reasonable percentage.

        Finally basic energy savings come from minimising handling.
      • by rve (4436)

        Take a drive down to the local landfill, dig down quite a bit and you will find that many biodegradable substances that have been there for 20+ years have not really biodegraded at all. This is caused by the fact that the biodegradability of a substance is often dependent on the oxygen available to organisms to breakdown the substance.

        Why are you in such a hurry? 20 years is almost nothing on a geological scale. What does it matter if something stays in the ground 20 years, 100 years or 1000, as long as it doesn't cause problems while it's in there. If it doesn't release harmful chemicals, cause a fire or a choking hazard, just let it sit.

        If you consider landfills an eyesore, incinerate the garbage instead. Where I live, there is not enough room for landfills, so all garbage is incinerated. The heat from the incinerators is used to gener

      • Not only that, but the biodegradability of such a substance is over-played as well. Take a drive down to the local landfill, dig down quite a bit and you will find that many biodegradable substances that have been there for 20+ years have not really biodegraded at all. This is caused by the fact that the biodegradability of a substance is often dependent on the oxygen available to organisms to breakdown the substance. Thus, if you pack the trash too tightly, you create an anaerobic environment where organisms are less efficient at breaking things down.

        What we really need is a better method of disposal, not necessarily creating new kinds of substances.

        Think of the future archeologists. If we find a better way to hasten biodegradation, how will they discover we existed on a diet of Twinkies and Coke while reading People magazine?

    • Or calling glue "liquid nails."

      Hey! That gives me an idea! Lets build a liquid house!

  • by name*censored* (884880) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:17PM (#26860145)

    Will this liquid wood be able to replace the vast number of different sorts of plastic we have today? There are some plastics with some fascinating properties out there, I'd like to imagine that we won't lose those properties forever when oil runs out..

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      The effect of oil running out won't be a loss of those interesting, special-purpose plastics. Where plastics are truly indispensable or irreplaceable, they will continue to be used, although they may be somewhat more expensive.

      Where plastics are used unnecessarily, they will be discarded in favor of something else.

    • by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:38PM (#26860255) Homepage

      We *can* create oil, even out of plain CO2 if necessary. We do have the chemical knowledge for that you know.

      Making any plastic will be still as easy as it is today : you buy some type of oil-derivative at the store, and polymerisize it. Easy enough.

      It will however, be a very costly thing to do indeed : it requires loads of energy. Right now that energy has simply been put in oil long ago, and making most plastics is in fact an exotherm process.

      We will still make plastics. Producing them, however, will stop producing energy and start massively costing energy.

      So that leaves multiple scenarios open. If we do get fusion operational somehow, for example, plastics will likely be as abundant as they are today, at least for a while. Even if we don't nuclear power is probably cheap enough to provide all those "specialty plastics", maybe even at comparable prices. The mass-market plastic will be the only thing disappearing.

      My guess is, we'd replace it by another extremely useful and versatile substance we so massively used before the oil started to get so widespread : Iron. It's only marginally more expensive than plastics (mostly due to the mines' labour cost, there is more than enough iron in the ground to coat the entire earth with it several times). Instead of buying your salami in cheap plastic packaging you'll simply buy it in a can.

      • Firstly, oil won't run out any time soon and secondly, there are vast quantities of coal.
      • there is more than enough iron in the ground to coat the entire earth with it several times). Instead of buying your salami in cheap plastic packaging you'll simply buy it in a can.

        Interesting comment. I'd wager that a huge portion of the plastic we make could (and perhaps, should) be replaced with something else. Mind you, we'd have to figure in the hidden costs of health problems and environmental degradation associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics for the price to even out.

        As a s

        • No poing in replacing plastics right now, as the above poster alluded to. A barrel of crude isn't used for just one product. You can't use one barrel for only fuel and one barrel for only plastics.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by az-saguaro (1231754)

        Your points are somewhat flawed.

        1 >> "Making any plastic will be still as easy as it is today : you buy some type of oil-derivative at the store, and polymerize it. Easy enough."

        True, it should be easy, once you figure out an economical, industrializable chemistry to do your polymerization. But wrong, you don't just buy some type of oil-derivative. Current polymers based on petroleum refinement are based on hydrocarbons. Plastics such as poly-styrene, -propylene, -ethylene, -ester, and nylon genera

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by drinkypoo (153816)

          Your points are somewhat flawed.

          Right back at you.

          Current polymers based on petroleum refinement are based on hydrocarbons. [...] biology generally doesn't have long carbon backbones, so life-on-earth has not generally evolved the metabolic machinery to handle hydrocarbons and derivatives.

          Uh, all kinds of living things make fats which are mostly CH bonds, and we have already made all kinds of plastics out of vegetable oils. Henry Ford made a car made almost entirely out of soybean oil (the body was famously made with hemp fibers and resin.)

          Getting hydrocarbons from bio sources is not a problem. They're not pure hydrocarbons, but they do have hydrocarbon chains. You do have to add energy (forgive my simplification) to reorganize into long-chain hydrocarbons. But energy is av

      • by lxs (131946)

        Instead of buying your salami in cheap plastic packaging you'll simply buy it in a can.

        Interesting that you automatically assume that salami needs any packaging at all, considering that it has been successfuly sold unpackaged for hundreds of years.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I don't know about that, but I can tell you that can already make a number of plastics plastic from hemp, corn, and soy, including biodegradable ones, and farming trees for plastic is going to be grossly inefficient compared to farming hemp. This is just one more misguided, idiot way to destroy the biosphere.

  • by Tenebrousedge (1226584) <tenebrousedge@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:19PM (#26860147)

    "The lignin itself was misunderstood completely by [leaders in the field] and the majority of people," says Simo Sarkanen, an environmental science professor at the University of Minnesota.

    Does that sound like a mad scientist to anyone else? "My research has been completely misunderstood, but I will change the world! And then they'll see! They'll pay for their ignorance! MUAHAHAHAHA!"

    • He even has a name to match. Well... at least the second part.
      Dr. Sarkanen sounds much better than Dr. Simo.

      He does look [umn.edu] like he fuckin hates us all for all those wood jokes all these years, though.

    • by pjt33 (739471)

      He's plainly mad anyway. Any sane person who wanted a way to make plastic without using oil would simply ask McDonald's for their cheese recipe.

  • by Quarters (18322) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:19PM (#26860153)
    Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Lignin. Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean? Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in lignin. Think about it. Will you think about it?
  • With peak oil projected to come within a decade, and with prices accompanying the decline to make last year seem cheap, this can't come soon enough. Hopefully, they'll allow the growth of hemp to supply this.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Quarters (18322)
      "Peak Oil" has been projected to come within a decade for the past three decades.
    • wait. when did peak oil move its date again? this is liek the third time.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by c6gunner (950153)

      Peak oil is, for all intents and purposes, a myth. It relies on the idea that no new oil reserves will be found, and no new technologies developed. That is a massively erroneous assumption. For instance, the recent price-hike encouraged us Canadians to start mining our reserves of oil-sands. The world oil-sands reserves are massive (more than the oil sources we use now), and they're simply not taken into account when computing "peak oil" projections. Oil-shales are another source which has barely been

      • that's not right at all. the idea of peak oil does in fact factor in new discoveries, it just asserts that new found reserves of light sweet crude will be of dwindling size and not meet the ever-increasing need for petroleum. same is true of new technologies.

        the tar sands are a great example - there's tons of oil in them, but it costs a shit ton to extract. whereas light sweet crude is easy as pie and cheap as hell to extract.

        'peak oil' was never about 'oil running out'. oil will never technically run out.

  • Next step (Score:5, Funny)

    by jmknsd (1184359) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:22PM (#26860169)

    transparent aluminum.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:26PM (#26860185)

    Once upon a time, when woody plants first evolved, there was nothing that could break them down. As a result, dead trees piled up hundreds of feet deep all over the world until bacteria evolved that could finally eat the stuff. This went on for long enough to leave the huge amount of coal that is still buried today.

    I would hope that some form of bacteria will develop the ability to eat various forms of plastic, as that's the only way that trash island is ever going away...

    • by MrNaz (730548) * on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:36PM (#26860239) Homepage

      Yea, these alarmists just like scaring people. The biosphere will evolve to deal with any problems we create today. This means that there's hope for our great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grand children after all.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Yea, these alarmists just like scaring people. The biosphere will evolve to deal with any problems we create today.

        Not sure whether this comment was meant seriously or not, but it is pretty much a given that the biosphere will evolve to take care of the mess we've made someday (it's been through worse already). The only question is whether we'll be around to see that happen, or if we'll have all died off before that time.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by X0563511 (793323)

          I'm kind of hoping that we will have removed ourselves from the area before that happens. I like to hope, you know.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Siridar (85255)

        Reminds me of a George Carlin skit:

        "Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. Nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked."

        http://gospelofreason.wordpress.com/2007/05/24/george-carlin-the-planet-is-fine/ [wordpress.com]

    • by j1m+5n0w (749199) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:38PM (#26860257) Homepage Journal
      For the benefit of the curious reader, here's some more information on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch [wikipedia.org] that you (and the summary) mention.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @10:00PM (#26860385) Journal
      There are already bacteria that can attack certain plastics(using an enzyme appropriately called "nylonase". Fairly quick work for a chemical that didn't exist until 1935. Shockingly enough, team creationism doesn't approve).

      The trouble, though, is those situations where plastics are destroying some part of the ecosystem far faster than organisms can evolve to clean them up. In the Great Pacific Garbage patch, for instance, the plastic is entering the food chain at an impressive clip and annhilating seabird populations. I'm sure the bacteria will have something figured out within a couple of centuries; but they might not have all that much company when they do.
    • by flyingfsck (986395) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @11:14PM (#26860707)
      Coal wasn't made from trees. Coal was made from the seed pods of ferns - unimaginable quantities of ferns and seed pods, over millions of years. The really interesting thing though is taht coal occurs in multiple seams with millions of years of intervening time. So the tropical rain forest climate that was needed for the ferns to grow, happened multiple times and therefore can happen again.
      • by macraig (621737) <mark DOT a DOT craig AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday February 15, 2009 @02:34AM (#26861433)

        Ummm... no. Ferns don't have seed pods. Ferns produce spores, which are far smaller than most seeds (orchid seeds perhaps being an exception).

        I rather doubt your statement is true, that petroleum is comprised of nothing but decomposed fern spore. Could you please cite a reasonably authoritative source?

        • by Giant Electronic Bra (1229876) on Sunday February 15, 2009 @01:30PM (#26864187)

          Or at least were. During the Devonian period these plants spread rapidly across the land and created the first forests.

          However I don't know of any source that claims that these seed pods are the primary constituent of coal.

          First of all the largest bulk of ancient coal deposits were laid down during the Carboniferous period, which followed the Devonian. These periods are all 10's of millions of years long and certainly bacteria evolved to eat lignin on a shorter time scale than that. In fact it is actually fungus that do most of the eating of wood anyway.

          It is also not true that coal was only formed in one or a few specific geological periods. There are coal deposits which formed in every period from the Devonian on through to relatively recent periods in the Cenozoic Era. LOTS of coal formed in the Carboniferous and a lot of it is now high quality coal.

          And anyone that has seen what sorts of stuff is in coal deposits will know that the vast majority of it was all sorts of different plant materials. There are leaves, trunks, roots, branches, etc all in the coal and in some places there are whole FORESTS turned to coal where all this stuff is still quite plainly visible. So maybe fern seed pods are a decent part of that, I don't know, but it is a lot more complex than that and even a modern forest could turn to coal in the right conditions.

      • So the tropical rain forest climate that was needed for the ferns to grow, happened multiple times and therefore can happen again.

        Not if the Cylons have their way!

      • by lxs (131946)

        I don't know about you, but given the choice, I'm not too thrilled at the prospect of sitting around in the dark for twenty million years waiting for the coal to replenish itself.

        As other commenters have said countless of times: The planet will be fine.
        The problem is trying to halt the current wave of mass extinctions before it's our turn to go the way of the dodo.

  • by Bagels (676159) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:35PM (#26860237)
    Plastic is a petroleum product. Can the conversion process be reversed? At what point does that million square miles of plastic gook start to look like a mine-able resource and not simply pollution? Certainly it could be recycled into new products, too.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jipn4 (1367823)

      The stuff that's floating around there is much, much harder to extract and use (it's tiny particles suspended in water) than the stuff we are still dumping every day. If we can't even be bothered to recycle all plastics and organics when they are in big trucks, what makes you think it's economical to do it halfway around the world, filtering millions of gallons of water to get at it?

    • here's your answer (Score:3, Informative)

      by jipn4 (1367823)

      http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Ocean-Plastic-Landfill-Algalita1nov02.htm [mindfully.org]

      I am often asked why we can't vacuum up the particles. In fact, it would be more difficult than vacuuming up every square inch of the entire United States, it's larger and the fragments are mixed below the surface down to at least 30 meters. Also, untold numbers of organisms would be destroyed in the process. Besides, there is no economic resource that would be directly benefited by this process. We have not yet learned how to

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by value_added (719364)

      Certainly it could be recycled into new products, too.

      That elicits the image of a dog chasing it's tail.

      Sure, you can take steps to mitigate problems, but it seems, at least to me, more reasonable to address the root of the problem. Which is too much fucking plastic.

    • by nido (102070)

      Plastic is a petroleum product. Can the conversion process be reversed?

      This is what Global Resource Corporation [globalresourcecorp.com]'s microwave does. Right now they are fine-tuning their prototype on used tires. One 20-pound tire yields 1 gallon of diesel oil, 50 cubic feet of propane/butane, some carbon black and some steel.

      The device uses a vacuum chamber to reclaim the hydrocarbons after they've been released from the solid.

  • The OPEC cycle (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Vandil X (636030) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @09:36PM (#26860247)
    I find it amusing that any time someone proposes using an alternative to petroleum-based products, that proposal always gets turned down and slammed for being more expensive, etc. than using petroleum...

    ...then we get back to petroleum products causing issues (environmental and economic)... and the cycle renews itself.

    Curse you OPEC and the lobbyists you have in our elected government.
  • by kimvette (919543) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @10:15PM (#26860461) Homepage Journal

    Didn't we have this (plastic made from wood) over a century ago?

    It's called cellophane.

    • by flyingfsck (986395) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @11:26PM (#26860755)
      Yup, we also had plastic made from milk, called casein, a long time before the first Bakelite was made.
      • by macraig (621737)

        Are all proteins officially considered plastics, then? Are all proteins polymers? Is "plastic" and "polymer" fully interchangeable?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Aviation Pete (252403)

      Cellophane is only one of many cellulose-derived plastics. Celluloid was the first, but the most important are esters of cellulose and organic acids. Cellulose acetate was first produced in 1865, and others are cellulose butyrate and cellulose propionate. Unfortunately, although produced on an industrial scale for a long time, they are much more expensive than most plastics.

  • Ping Pong Balls (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flyingfsck (986395) on Saturday February 14, 2009 @11:31PM (#26860783)
    Ping Pong Balls are made of celluloid. Plastic made from wood. What is old will be new again...
  • Lignin is actually a natural "plastic" - polymer - as I learned last year. It's a polymer with a ridiculously long molecular chain; I've wondered if that is what gives it its rigidity. If we can manage to re-purpose lignin as a replacement for synthetic hard plastics, that might ease the crash that is inevitably coming as petroleum becomes increasingly scarce.

  • by Aviation Pete (252403) on Sunday February 15, 2009 @05:46AM (#26861939)

    As the article carefully states, even Arboform uses only 50% lignin (yes, I *did* RTFA). The rest is made up of rather expensive "additives" - one crucial ingredient being Ecoflex, a synthetic (= oil-based) polymer which is needed to reduce the extreme brittleness of genuine lignin.

    Two hopes spelled out in the articles will never materialize:
    - it will never be as cheap as oil-based plastics are today, and
    - it will never be able to replace most of the current oil-based plastics due to it's poor mechanical properties (unless we reduce the lignin content even further).

  • by tigerbody1 (1268208) on Sunday February 15, 2009 @05:56AM (#26861969)
    In the early days - 7 plants were named and shown to be excellent oil sources.
    And these oil sources can be combined with a hardener to become a "plastic"
    Soy oil was one of the first.

    George Overley was the chemist working for Henry Ford to create many plant based components for Ford cars and trucks. Around 30 different components were plant based until Henry Ford was kicked out of the company he started.
    The most famous is the Soy plastic bumpers that are mostly mistaken as Hemp Plastic by Jack Herrer in
    "The Emperor Wears No Cloths"
  • It's already here. (Score:5, Informative)

    by moosesocks (264553) on Sunday February 15, 2009 @06:41AM (#26862079) Homepage

    Although lingin-based plastics may be something new, bioplastics are by no means new.

    By pure and honest coincidence, I have a disposable cup [f-k.com] made out of a plant-based bioplastic sitting on my desk that I got from a restaurant along with some take-out earlier today.

    It's virtually indistinguishable from a normal plastic cup, and actually looks a bit nicer than your typical disposable drinkware -- the crystal-clear bioplastic is sturdy and has a nice 'shine' to it. It's biodegradable, and contains no oil-based inputs, although you'd never guess it by looking at it or handling it.

    The manufacturers [natureworksllc.com] of the biopolymer claim that it can be adapted to all sorts of other products, at what seem to be fairly reasonable prices (~$1/kg). What's not to love?

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