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Managing Editor  | September 2017

Compostable biomaterial could replace petroleum-based plastic laminates

Researchers at Penn State University (State College, Pa.) have developed an inexpensive biomaterial from treated cellulose and chitosan (derived from chitin, the primary ingredient in the exoskeletons of crustaceans), which is a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastic barrier coatings in packaging, according to a report from the university.



 Jeff Catchmark began experimenting with biomaterials that might be used instead of plastics a decade or so ago out of concerns for sustainability. (Penn State University)


The material, which is a polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex, can be used in numerous applications, such as water-resistant paper, coatings for ceiling tiles, or food coatings to keep them fresh. The main source for the chitin that is used in the material is leftover shells from lobsters, crabs, and shrimp consumed by humans.


“The amazingly sturdy and durable bond between carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan is the key,” the article explained, “The two very inexpensive polysaccharides — already used in the food industry and in other industrial sectors — have different molecular charges and lock together in a complex that provides the foundation for impervious films, coatings, adhesives and more.”


Sustainability is an important attribute of the new material, which has the potential to replace millions of tons of plastic associated with food packaging worldwide.


“The polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex coatings performed well in research,” the article added. “Paperboard coated with the biomaterial, comprised of nanostructured fibrous particles of carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan, exhibited strong oil and water barrier properties. The coating also resisted toluene, heptane and salt solutions and exhibited improved wet and dry mechanical and water vapor barrier properties.”


Scientists are now working on commercialization of the technology and convince industry members to use the natural material, which decomposes and can be recycled.


The research was recently published in Green Chemistry. The abstract stated:


“There is a need for sustainable, ecologically compatible barrier materials as a replacement for petroleum derived compounds for packaging and other applications that generate significant land and ocean pollution. Polysaccharides are natural biologically produced or derived polymers manufactured in large quantities for many industries including food and papermaking.


“Polysaccharide based films and coatings, however, do not exhibit adequate barrier performance especially in aqueous systems due to their inherent solubility in polar media. This work demonstrates a coating based on polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complexes (PPC) that exhibit barrier performance.


“Specifically, paperboard coated with a PPC material comprised of nanostructured fibrous particles of carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan exhibits oil and water barrier properties at room temperature and 80 °C. The coating also resists toluene, n-heptane, salt solutions and exhibits improved wet and dry mechanical and water vapor barrier properties.


“These results show that PPC based materials may be competitive barrier alternatives to synthetic polymers for many volume commercial applications. In addition, this work demonstrates that new unexpected properties emerge from multi-polysaccharide systems engaged in electrostatic complexation, enabling new high-performance applications.”

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