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Professor researches creating plastic from sugarcane
Melissa Wylie / Senior Staff Writer
Two greenhouses worth of sugarcane at the new Research Greenhouse Complex at Discovery Park are dedicated to biology professor Stevens Brumbley’s research in bioplastics.
Bioplastics are produced from a biological source rather than the usual petroleum base, Brumbley said.
Plastics are made of large groups of molecules called polymers, which are created through the bacterial fermentation of carbon.
The majority of plastics are derived from carbons found in oil. These carbons are manually combined with different bacteria to form polymers that make up the plastic found in everyday items.
The idea of manipulating sugarcane was first presented to Brumbley during a visit to Brazil in the late 1990s, Brumbley said.
The Brazilian sugar exporter Copersucar had used sugar to create plastic products similar to those made with traditional petroleum chemicals, and Brumbley said he wanted to expand on their innovations.
Brumbley said he began his research in 2000 and does not predict an end to developments made in the field.
“It’s kind of cutting edge,” Brumbley said. “We’re walking up to the very interface of what we know, what we can do and we’re testing the boundaries.”
Brumbley said his idea is to chemically engineer sugarcane to create the compounds needed to make plastic while still growing naturally.
“What we think we can do is use plants to make these polymers by taking the same genes the bacteria uses to make them and inserting them into the plants,” Brumbley said.
There are five graduate and five undergraduate students conducting bioplastics research with Brumbley, he said.
Biochemistry and molecular biology doctoral student Claudia Gonzalez has participated in the research for the past year and said she is currently analyzing how different amounts of bacteria affect the plant.
“These enzymes are external. They do not belong to sugarcane,” Gonzalez said. “We do not know how exactly we are interfering.”
As the amount of enzymes increases, causing the number of polymers to also increase, there are negative physiological effects on the plant, Brumbley said.
Gonzalez and Brumbley said the current focus of the research is to determine a process to create more polymers without damaging the sugarcane plant.
Gonzalez said most plastics are made from nonrenewable materials that will eventually run out, like oil, and the products do not break down easily when thrown away.
Bioplastics are less harmful to the environment and are highly renewable, Gonzalez said.
“These bioplastics actually degrade really well in the soil by different bacteria,” she said. “They nourish the soil.”
Brumbley said major corporations have been slow to adopt the use of bioplastics because of the high cost of production.
“The biggest factor that’s going to impact this is the end cost,” Brumbley said. “Right now the fermentation process of making these plastics isn’t cost competitive with petrochemical plastics.”
Initially, bioplastics made from sugarcane cost $40 to $50 per pound to produce. The cost has since reduced to a few dollars, but the goal is for the expense to be less than $1 per pound, Brumbley said.