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Could ‘liquid wood’ replace plastic?

Germans engineer an organic alternative from a paper waste product.

Scott Wallace/Staff

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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.

Sensing a hazard, researchers started hunting for a substitute for plastic’s main ingredient, petroleum. They wanted something renewable, biodegradable, and abundant enough to be inexpensive.

Though they stumbled upon a great candidate early on, many US chemists had given up on it by the end of the 1990s. The failed wonder material: lignin, the natural compound that lends strength to trees. A waste product from paper production, much of the lignin supply is simply burned as fuel.

But while many scientists turned to other green options, a German company, Tecnaro,  says it found the magic formula. Its “liquid wood” can be molded like plastic, yet biodegrades over time.

Now, Tecnaro’s success could revive interest in lignin and propel the search for better and cheaper bioplastics.

“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.

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