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New process turns pulp industry waste wood into plastic products

Photo provided by Lindsay Eltis. Photo provided by Lindsay Eltis.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found an environmentally friendly way to turn waste softwood from the pulp industry into plastic products like nylon.

“The idea is to use the bacteria in a fermentation-like process to convert aromatic compounds derived from the lignin to something useful,” said microbiologist Dr. Lindsay Eltis.

Eltis is a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology who led a team of scientists to engineer pathways in bacteria and use them to convert waste wood into petroleum products.

His team studied an enzyme that breaks down the ring structures found in lignin, a major component of the woody biomass that’s currently burned by the pulp industry.

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan to visualize and describe this enzyme for the first time. Their results were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. 

“If we want to be able to engineer the bacteria, we have to understand that breakdown process,” said Eltis.

“What the Light Source enables us to do is to get highly detailed information about what those enzymes look like.”

He says if applied in a commercial operation in a biorefinery the process has the potential to change the industry. The process can also be used to convert cellulose from straw from grains and corn.

“There’s thousands of potential things that could be made and many, many applications.”

Eltis says there are many environmental benefits to using the process.

The plastic products created by the process are biodegradable.

It also reduces carbon emissions from burning. At present, pulp mills extract cellulose and burn the lignin.

“Being able to transform renewable resources would really go a long way to achieving some of these goals,” said Eltis.

The process hasn’t been commercialized yet, however, Eltis says interest has come from the U.S. Department of Energy, West Fraser, Suzano and pulp and paper companies.

“This application is an exciting pathway for Canada's pulp and paper industry to develop new low carbon bio-products. All of our mills, including Prince Albert Pulp Inc., would be able to participate in this work,” said Paper Excellence Vice President, Energy & Business Development Carlo Dal Monte.

Paper Excellence says its interested in using the application once it is ready for large-scale application.

The study was funded in part by Genome Canada, Genome B.C. and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada. Top Stories

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