Friday, December 11, 2009

Liquid Wood

With the growing price of crude oil and concerns over the safety of everyday products it is no surprise that new alternatives are being explored in the world of plastics. Plastics are petroleum based and are linked to  heavy metals and softeners known as phthalates which is cause for concern when it is being used for everything from food containers to baby toys. Plastics are also non-renewable and some are not recyclable leading to greater amounts of trash that remain in a landfill forever. When burned, plastics release toxic fumes into the atmosphere. A growing alternative to petroleum based plastics is a bio-plastic called Arboform.

Arboform is a non-toxic bio-plastic composed of wood pulp based lignin, which can be mixed with other natural fibers along with wax to make a strong waterproof plastic alternative. Lignin, is an idyllic raw material because tens of millions of tons are often discarded as a byproduct of the papermaking process. Most commonly, lignin is separated from the cellulose and hemicellulose used to make high quality paper, by means of a sulfite or sulfate pulping process. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology in Germany have found a way to was to use high-pressure hydrolysis (with nothing more than water, high temperature and high pressure) to yield water insoluble lignin that does not need to be separated out by chemical means. With scares about the safety of children's toys Arboform seems like a perfect alternative being lower in chemicals and able to retain its stability even against saliva. When under high pressure conditions, Arboform can be injected into molds and behave just like plastic. Its versatility and renewability makes Arboform a very attractive prospect to manufacturers. When the life of the product is over it can be broken down and recycled as filler or can be burned just like wood without any additional toxic fumes.
This technology is relatively new in the United States but Arboform could be a real solution to reducing dependence on oil. Since the raw materials are renewable and can be grown in the country, the security of the resource is exponentially greater than that of crude oil. Paper manufacturing companies could easily incorporate the production of Arboform along with their products making them more efficient and allowing them to earn greater profits from their raw materials. Arboform is attractive to health conscious consumers that demand non-toxic products for themselves and their families. Even though it is more popular in Europe manufacturers hope that with the green movement Arboform will gain popularity in the U.S. More testing is needed for the safety of the product but overall the outlook is very positive.

By: Stephanie Berry
MSNBC "A greener alternative to plastics: liquid wood" By: Bryn Nelson

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