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Renewable Biopolymers: Using Citrus Peels to Replace Plastics

Polymers – natural or synthetic compounds that consist of many simple molecules linked repeatedly – can be found everywhere. They range from the plastic in water bottles and the rubber in car tires to the DNA in human bodies and keratin in hair and nails.

Most of the artificial polymers used today are built from fossil fuel-derived molecules. Over time, scientists have developed straightforward methods of producing these polymers; however, these methods yield polymers that may be toxic and can take thousands of years to degrade in the environment.

Polymers that are produced by living organisms, known as biopolymers, offer a viable alternative to polymers synthesized from fossil fuels. Using natural renewable polymers instead of fossil-fuel based polymers would require less time, energy and money. Not only are biopolymers safer to handle than fossil fuel-based polymers, they also degrade very quickly.

“Biopolymers are a renewable chemical resource with attractive physical and mechanical properties,” says Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “They are typically complex mixtures that are difficult to characterize chemically, nonetheless they are widely used as relatively unprocessed materials (wood), processed materials (cellulose) or chemically modified materials (rayon).”

Coverstone is currently leading an interdisciplinary research project to develop advanced biomaterials from renewable, plant-derived biopolymers. The project team is composed of four UM faculty, one postdoctoral research associate, five graduate students and four undergraduate students, all from departments in different colleges: the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, and the Department of Marine Geosciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Three UM business units are also represented, bringing a breadth of expertise to this inherently multi-disciplinary research effort.

Specifically, the research effort will focus on citrus pulp fiber, a waste biopolymer that is relatively underexplored and only recently has been introduced as a commercial product. “Characterization and exploration of applications using citrus fiber presents opportunity to add value to the global industry and reuse citrus waste,” explains Coverstone. “Citrus production in Florida contributes $8.6 billion to the state’s economy. Citrus peels, which contain citrus fiber, account for about half of the total fruit wet mass disposed each year and go underutilized as an abundant natural resource.”

While the processing of biopolymers presents chemical and mechanical challenges, they nonetheless provide a unique opportunity to sustainably produce a broad range of biocompatible materials for applications in chemistry, mechanics, and biology.

The long-term goal of this proposal is to initiate and foster collaboration between the different departments and, ultimately, secure state, federal and corporate funding for a nationally recognized Center for Renewable Biopolymers (Renew@U).

The collaborative research project, one of seven awards funded by the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, focuses on the topics related to the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science (FICMS), the first of the Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering that will be housed in the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Science and Engineering Building.

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