Spider Silk Based New Materials Offer a Way Forward from Plastics

by | Jun 23, 2021 | Environment, Solutions

Spider Silk Based New Materials Offer a Way Forward from Plastics

by | Jun 23, 2021 | Environment, Solutions

Plastics are very useful materials. They’ve contributed significant benefits to modern society. But the unprecedented amount of plastics produced over the past few decades has caused serious environmental pollution.

Republished with permission from The Conversation, by Hom Dhakal, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Portsmouth

Plastics are very useful materials. They’ve contributed significant benefits to modern society. But the unprecedented amount of plastics produced over the past few decades has caused serious environmental pollution.

Packaging alone was responsible for 46% out of 340 million tonnes of plastic waste generated globally in 2018. Although plastic recycling has increased significantly in recent years, most plastics used today are single use, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.

The demand for food will double by 2050. This will probably increase the amount of waste from food and its plastic packaging, putting poorer countries under tremendous pressure to manage waste disposal.

To tackle the issues of environmental damage, we need more sustainable materials that we can recycle or that biodegrade. There’s been a surge in plant-based plastics, but many of these can only be composted using industrial processes, not by people at home.

Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have found a way to make plastic from abundant and sustainable plant proteins. Inspired by spider silk, the film works in a way similar to other plastics, but it can be composted at home.

Types of plastic

Synthetic and non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for food packaging include polythene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and crystalline polythene terephthalate (CPET).

There are some processes in place for disposing of PET—namely mechanical and chemical recycling techniques—but most plastic around the world is still sent to landfills. PET can take hundreds of years to decompose and it’s non-biodegradable. This means it can continue to pollute the ecosystem for many years.

Making plastic requires lots of energy. Then, when plastics are thrown away, they cause environmental damage, including global warming, greenhouse gas emissions and damage to marine life.

On the other hand, there are some biodegradable plant-based plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polycaprolactone) (PCL) and polyhydroxyalkanotes (PHAs), which are friendlier to the environment than non-renewable polymers.

PLA polymers are produced from renewable resources and have the advantage of being recyclable and compostable. This makes PLA a much more environmentally friendly material than PET, PS and CPET. However, their long-term durability and stability are lower than their synthetic counterparts.

The new material

The new research has investigated the potential use of a biodegradable and renewable polymer, such as soy protein, to make a new material that could be an alternative to other plant-based plastics.

The researchers created a plant-based plastic and added nanoparticles—particles smaller than one millionth of a meter. This meant they could control the structure of the material to create flexible films, with a material that looks like spider silk on a molecular level. They’ve called it a “vegan spider silk.”

The new material in action. Xampla

The team used various techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to study the structure of the film.

They analyzed important properties, such as barrier properties and moisture absorption. They found the nanoparticles helped to increase the various properties—strength and long-term durability and stability—significantly.

By creating a plastic with a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process, made from sustainable materials itself, a significant amount of energy can be saved. This is one of the most exciting parts of this study.

This new material could help solve some of the problems that plastic pollution has caused to the environment—by introducing a material from renewable source with enhanced properties suitable for many engineering applications, including packaging.

The study could help to scale up the production of sustainable packaging materials, using natural resources and less energy consumption, while reducing the amount of plastic going into landfill.

The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. We publish trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts for the general public and edited by our team of journalists.

Related Articles

Oct 18 2021

Ivermectin Is a Brilliant Drug — Just Not for Covid-19

Many organizations with dubious intentions have continued to promote unsubstantiated use of ivermectin for COVID-19. This has led to a dramatic rise in ivermectin...
Oct 11 2021

Reality Check: Many Food Crops Are Sprayed with Glyphosate Weed Killer Before Harvest

As safety concerns about glyphosate herbicides mount, the practice of spraying the herbicide on many crops before harvest—and getting into food products—is under...
Oct 07 2021

To Joe Manchin: We Are Already an “Entitlement Society:” Corporate Entitlement

Joe Manchin is now infamously quoted as saying he “Does not want to see us becoming an ‘Entitlement Society.'” Too late Joe, we’re already there...
Oct 06 2021

Three Physicists Share the Nobel Prize for Contributions Toward Understanding Climate Change

Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi have been announced as winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics. The prize is awarded “for groundbreaking...
building during day
Oct 05 2021

An Oath Is a Serious Thing—So Says the 14th Amendment

We have law makers and holders of government offices and positions who technically do not qualify for their posts. This is the law of the land, Section 3 of the 14th...
person using both laptop and smartphone
Sep 30 2021

How to Free Yourself of the 24-Hour News Cycle

The “news cycle” runs on and on. It is a machine that society uses in order to “stay informed.” We have, many in the society, gone into...
Sep 29 2021

Building Real Solutions to the Nation’s Homeless Crisis

Demand for homeless services is increasing. Scores of communities are finding that when providers work in teams and use better data and systems, they can solve the...
Sep 28 2021

How Small-Scale Manufacturing Can Bring Downtowns Back

Five cities are leading the way with manufacturing programs to nurture these homegrown entrepreneurs and fill storefronts emptied by the pandemic.
Sep 28 2021

Yes, Masks Prevent COVID-19 – and Surgical Masks Are the Way to Go

Do masks work? And if so, should you reach for an N95, a surgical mask, a cloth mask or a gaiter? Over the past year and a half, researchers have produced a lot of...
white concrete building during daytime
Sep 25 2021

It Is Time for Senate Democrats to Blow Up the Filibuster

Senate Democrats must finally exercise their power and act on the fact that the solution is to blow up the filibuster, just as Mitch McConnell blew it up to pack the...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Updates!

Subscribe for Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This