Saturday, March 14, 2009

Liquid wood, the new and improved plastic

Plastic makes our world go round, or it so seems. It would be near impossible to find an American without anything made of plastic in his or her home. All these plastic products fill our landfills though, and stay there for thousands of year. Now, a highly recycle-able plastic has been discovered, and it's called Arboform.

Arboform is made from lignin, a wood component that is not needed in the papermaking industry, mixed with fibers and natural additives such as wax. The fibers come various sources including wood, hemp, or flax. It was a developed by a group of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT) in Pfinztal, Germany led by Emilia Regina Inone-Kauffmann. In the past, some car parts and other durable, non-household products have been made from bio-plastic, but Arboform is different because the sulfur content of the original bio-plastic has been reduced by 90%, making it safe to be used in household items. Not only can it now be used in household items, but especially in toys which often end up in babies mouths and therefore need to be free of any potentially harmful materials. In order to test the "recyclability" of the new bio-plastic, the scientists broke it down into tiny pieces and reprocessed it ten times over. No changes were detected in the material properties of the bio-plastic, guaranteeing it's abillity to be recycled. The German scientists hope to see it completely replace petroleum-based plastics in the future. An estimated 8% of the world's total oil production goes into plastic production, which may not be a lot, but every little bit counts.

The positive environmental impact of Arboform would be incredibly significant. Not only can a material that is included in almost everything we use be made of completely renewable resources, but it can also be recycled, decreasing the need for fossil fuels and the size of our landfills.

E-Science News


Travis said...

Arborform sounds like an instant replacement for petroleum based plastics. Reducing petroleum based products is something that I favor, but I do not favor it at the cost of forests. The Arborform is made from excess waste from the papermaking industry; however does the paper making industry have enough waste lignin to completely replace petroleum based plastics? If not, and we begin relying on Arborform, the company would have to begin producing lignin in excess of the paper making industry (or cutting down trees).
Also, as with any seeming miracle replacement product, the major obstacle is getting it to be financially viable. The waste lignin may be free, but how much is the processing and the cost of the "fibers and natural additives"?
Finally, I am not sure you can claim it to be "made of completely renewable resources". If all the tree disappear, then there is no more resources to produce the Arborform. The product could be sustainably renewable, but that requires intense regulation and acknowledgement from the produces and consumers. Although I hope the wood-plastic can supplant petroleum products, I feel it is important to address these possible obstructions (with any new method or product) before claiming it will "completely replace" anything.

rmk said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting information! I am familiar with starch-based replacements for plastic, but did not know about this wood-based material. The starch-based (corn, soy) plastics are being used quite extensively for food packaging, plastic forks, and cups. Incidentally I wonder if is a better material if people don't actually try to compost it...

I will be curious to follow the continued news for Arboform, since apparently there is still much secrecy about how it is produced, according to a February 2009 Christian Science Monitor article (

While there is much debate about whether this could result in excessive deforestation or the substitution of fossil fuels to replace energy produced from lignin, it seems that this new material could be produced in a rational manner in tandem with more sustainable fuel/power generation to replace lignin...