Canadian Researchers Turn Potato Starch into Bioplastics

CanPlastics.com
08/10/2009


Canadian plastics processors looking to cash in on the ever-increasing demand among consumers for “green” products might want to think about the new BioPotato Network, a recently-created network designed in part to create bioplastics from potato starch.

Funded by a $5.3 million investment by the Government of Canada, the broad goal of the BioPotato Network is to bring together scientists from governments, academia and industry to collaborate on commercializing potato extracts, and, not incidentally, help to develop new markets for potato farmers.

The narrower bioplastics part of the initiative involves collaboration between plant breeders, food scientists, molecular biologists and plant production specialists from across Canada.

Currently, corn is the preferred source for starches used in bioplastics in North America, but researchers with the BioPotato Network believe that, due to the plentiful nature of potatoes – which grow in every Canadian province and contribute nearly $6 billion to the national economy – the starch-heavy crop makes an ideal substitute. “The potato is a starch factory, so there is a lot of raw material available for bioplastics,” said Dr. Qiang Liu, a food scientist at the Guelph Food Research Centre in Guelph, Ont. who heads the BioPotato Network’s research team.

The potato starch by-product is already used by used by the food processing industry as a general thickener, binder, texturizer, and anti-caking or gelling agent. It’s also used in yeast filtration, and as additives in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. All of these characteristics, researchers believe, add up to make it an ideal component for a new generation of bioplastics.

According to Dr. Liu, the potato starch is converted into a plastic-like resin that can be heated and shaped into a variety of products through an injection molding process. The resulting material is completely degradable by composting and is an excellent material for food packaging because it allows the food to breathe. “Food packaging made with a blend of potato, wheat and tapioca starch has proven durable enough to be baked in an oven and heated in a microwave, and a few companies have already started selling these bioplastics in Canada,” he continued.

However, scientists believe that further research with potato starch can improve bioplastics, help broaden their applications, and create bioplastics with greater water resistance, stronger mechanical properties and greater processability.

With funding through the BioPotato Network, scientists are working to develop potato-based bioplastic film and foam and improve the performance of potato-based bioplastic.

“By examining every aspect of potato starch from molecular properties to the final product, we are working together to create a new generation of degradable bioplastics for the benefit of the future generations,” said Dr. Liu.

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