Genetically engineered plastics grown on plants could begin to replace millions of fossil-fuel-fed tons of plastics within the next decade, Kieran Elborough, a scientist at Britain's University of Durham, says.
The plastics would not only be fully biodegradable, they would eliminate the environmental and financial costs associated with large-scale petrochemicals-to-polymer refineries fed by oil products.By so doing, plastics grown on the leaves of the genetically engineered oilseed rape plant that has already been under cultivation in Britain for two years would cut the consumption of crude oil.
"These plastics should be as cheap as petrochemically derived ones," Elborough told Reuters this week. "They could be slightly more expensive, but if the customer accepts the product, he will be prepared to pay a little more in view of its biodegradable and green economic value."
Elborough is part of a research team into "plastic plants" also involving the university of Manchester and University College London.
The process is fully patented by U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto and the research work funded in its current three-year phase by the British government.
British chemical company ICI, the biotechnology arm of which was later split off as Zeneca, initiated research into bacterial fermentation of sugar and starch into plastics in the early 1990s before selling off the project and associated patents to Monsanto three years ago.
Monsanto is among a series of agrichemical, biotechnology and chemical firms in Japan, the United States and Europe that already produce biodegradable polymers - Monsanto's own brand is Biopol - direct from bacteria.
The end-products, similar in their properties to oil-based plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene, are used to make shampoo bottles, razor blade holders, coatings in the inside of paper cups and golf tees, among other everyday products.
So far, however, these alternative plastics have proved far too expensive to be viable on a mass commercial scale. According to Elborough, typical biopolymers still cost around 10 pounds sterling per kilogram, compared with just one 1-1.50 pounds for polyethylene.
Hence the research into plastic plants, which Elborough is optimistic will yield commercially viable plastic within the next nine or 10 years.
"We use three specific genes occurring in bacteria found in most soils, and we derive three different proteins that can make the plastic we're developing," says Elborough. "We then take the genes out of the bacteria and place them into the oilseed rape."
The research team has set itself the target of 20 percent plastic content in the seeds of the genetically engineered crop.
"We can't reveal how much plastic we're producing at the moment, but our figures are rising constantly," Elborough said.