The research was undertaken in conjunction with the University of Warwick's Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining led by Professor Tim Bugg, whose team has been working to develop methods to control the breakdown of lignin using bacteria and extract these chemicals in significant quantities.
The project has successfully demonstrated that bacteria can be effective in the selective degradation of lignin, and that the breakdown pathway can be controlled and improved using synthetic biology. Crucially, several organic chemicals have been produced at laboratory scale in promising yields that have potential use in bioplastic manufacture.
"Scientists have been trying to extract chemicals from lignin for more than 30 years. Previously, chemical methods have been used but these produce a very complex mixture of hundreds of different products in very small amounts. By using bacteria found in soil we can manipulate the lignin degradation pathway to control the chemicals produced," explains Tim Bugg, Director of the Warwick Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining.
Initial scale-up trials on several of these target chemicals have demonstrated the potential for them to be produced at industrial scale, suggesting the commercial feasibility of using lignin-derived chemicals as an alternative for their petrochemical counterparts. Biome Bioplastics has also transformed these chemicals into a material that shows promising properties for use as an advanced bioplastic.
According to Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Bioplastics, the initial results of the feasibility study showed strong promise for integration into Biome's product lines. "Looking ahead, we anticipate that the availability of a high performance polymer, manufactured economically from renewable sources, would considerably increase the bioplastic market," he commented.
The next phase of the project will examine how the yields of these organic chemicals can be increased using different bacteria and explore options for further scale-up of this technology. The first commercial target is to use the lignin-derived chemicals to replace the oil-derived equivalents currently used to convey strength and flexibility in some of Biome Bioplastics' products, further reducing cost and enhancing sustainability.
Industrial biotechnology, the use of biological materials to make industrial products, is recognized by the UK government as a promising means of developing less carbon intensive products and processes, with an estimated value to the UK of between £4bn and £12bn by 2025.