Researchers at work to develop seawater-degradable plastic to combat marine pollution

RNS: Aiming to combat the global menace of marine waste, researchers at the University of Queensland are actively engaged in developing a revolutionary seawater-degradable plastic. Led by Ruirui Qiao from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, this project seeks to revolutionize the way we perceive and utilize plastics, ultimately aiming to address the pressing issue of ocean pollution caused by non-biodegradable plastics.

The pressing concern of marine waste, comprising long-lasting plastic containers, bags, and pervasive microplastics, threatens ecosystems and the countless seabirds and marine mammals that inhabit them.

Ruirui Qiao emphasized the gravity of the situation, stating, “Our oceans are being clogged by long-lasting plastic containers, bags, and even microplastics – which pose a significant threat to ecosystems, including millions of seabirds and mammals.”

In response to this crisis, Qiao and her team diligently refine novel polymerization techniques. They aim to develop an affordable and biodegradable alternative to conventional plastics, paving the way for sustainable solutions. The urgency of the situation has prompted researchers to explore plastic degradation technologies as a vital solution component.

Collaborating closely with colleagues Professor Tom Davis and international partners Professor Xuan Pang and Professor Xuesi Chen from the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry, the University of Queensland research team is working tirelessly on creating a diverse range of customized seawater-degradable plastics. These materials are fabricated using cutting-edge 3D-printing techniques developed by Qiao’s research group at AIBN, coupled with polymeric materials generated by the esteemed Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The project recently received a significant boost with a grant of $125,000 from the Queensland-Chinese Academy of Sciences Collaborative Science Fund. This funding will accelerate research efforts over the next two years.

One of the key techniques employed in this endeavour is known as ring-opening polymerization. This technique offers precise control over the plastics’ mechanical strength and shape, while imparting them with a low-toxic polyester ‘backbone.’ As a result, these plastics have the unique ability to disintegrate into a molecular state when exposed to marine environments.

The ultimate objective of this ambitious undertaking is to commercialize a new line of products in both Australia and China within five years. These products are envisioned to replace traditional plastics, tapping into a burgeoning biodegradable market anticipated to surpass $9.5 billion in value by that time.

Qiao articulated the broader implications of their work, stating, “Effective seawater-degradable polymer plastics will reduce plastic debris in oceans, boosting the health of ecosystems and the quality of life in communities around the world.” Moreover, this initiative is fostering collaboration between research groups in Queensland and China, further bolstering the field of polymer science and additive manufacturing. With unwavering dedication and innovation, these researchers are determined to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future for our oceans and the global community.

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