Research ‘breakthrough’ could offer solution to single-use plastics challenge

XAMPLA has revealed that new research published in Nature Communications could ‘signal the end of fossil fuel single-use plastics’ as the science behind a new plant protein substitute is made public.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Knowles Lab describe how they can create a polymer film from plant protein, which has been described as ‘sustainable, scalable and 100% natural’.

Made entirely from plant protein which can be sourced as a by-product of the agriculture industry, the material can be consumed in nature after use. Its functionality is said to be consistent with conventional plastic, but it requires no chemical cross-linking used in bio-polymers to give them the strength and flexibility of plastic.

The research shows how scientists can naturally assemble plant proteins so the final structure is similar to spider silk. Through a process involving acetic acid and water, ultrasonication and heat, the plant proteins are transformed. 

Xampla, the Cambridge University spin-out commercialising the technology, is developing its applications to replace single-use plastics including flexible packaging films, sachets, microcapsules found in home and personal care products, and carrier bags.

The paper is the culmination of more than 10 years’ research into understanding how nature generates materials from proteins.

Professor Tuomas Knowles who led the research said, “One of the key breakthroughs is that we can supply this product on a large scale, and it can replace plastic in very specific applications. We have proved it’s possible to solve the single-use plastics problem.”

Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia, co-author of the paper and Xampla’s head of research, added, “It’s amazing to realise that a discovery you make in a lab can have a big impact on solving a global problem. That’s essentially why we are doing this – we really love the science, but we also wanted to do something meaningful about solving the overwhelming problem of plastic waste.”