Yao then carried out a comprehensive life cycle assessment to test the environmental impact of the bioplastic on common plastics. Sheets of the bioplastic were buried in soil, broke after two weeks and completely decomposed after three months; In addition, researchers say that mechanical agitation can break the bioplastic back down into the slurry, which also allows the DES to be recovered and reused.
“For me, that’s what makes this plastic really good: Everything can be recycled or biodegraded,” says Yao. “We have minimized all materials and waste that end up in nature.”
The bioplastic has numerous uses, says Liangbing Hu, Professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Materials Innovation and co-author of the paper. It can be formed into a film that can be used in plastic bags and packaging – one of plastic’s major uses and causes of its generation of waste. Hu also says that since the bioplastic can be molded into various shapes, it can also be used in automotive engineering.
One area the research team continues to investigate is the potential impact on forests if production of this bioplastic is increased. While the process currently uses wood by-products in its manufacture, researchers are very aware that large-scale production could require the use of large amounts of wood, which could have far-reaching implications for forests, land management, ecosystems, and climate change – name a few.
According to Yao, the research team has already started working with a forest ecologist to create forest simulation models that link the growth cycle of forests to the manufacturing process. She also sees the opportunity to work with people who work at YSE in forest-related areas – an unusual amenity.
“It’s not often that an engineer walks down the hall and speaks to a forester,” says Yao.
Yao, an aspiring scientist in the field of industrial ecology, joined the YSE faculty last year. Her research examines the environmental and economic impact of emerging technologies and industrial processes, integrating interdisciplinary approaches from industrial ecology, sustainable engineering, and systems modeling to develop techniques that promote more sustainable engineering approaches and strategies.
– – Josh Anusewicz [email protected]