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Cooking Up Biobased Plastics From Corn, Soybean and Other Renewables

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Thought microwave ovens were only good for heating up food? Guess again.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Atanu Biswas and his colleagues are using a slightly more sophisticated version of the household microwave to "cook up" biobased plastics made from corn, soybean and other renewable sources.

The method to such microwave "madness" is two-fold: to lessen the environmental "footprint" of using petrochemical-based plastics and to create new, value-added uses for agricultural commodities – soy oil, corn starch and cellulose among them.

Biswas' use of technology called microwave reactor is central to an approach that Biswas and colleagues at ARS's Plant Polymer Research Unit in Peoria, Illinois, devised to help reactions necessary to create biopolymers for use in plastics, coatings, films and other products.

Throughout the research planning phase, an emphasis is placed on ensuring the methods devised for making these biopolymer-based products are just as sustainable and environmentally friendly, added Biswas.

He also collaborates internationally on biopolymer-related projects and credits these interactions with spurring new approaches to problem-solving and product improvement.

For example, in 2019, he collaborated with Spanish scientists in developing bio-degradable food packaging under a fellowship award from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And in 2015, under a "Science Without Borders" fellowship, he worked with Roselayne Furtado and her team at the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) in Fortaleza, Brazil, to improve the properties of edible films made from shrimp chitin, cashew nut byproducts, sugarcane and other commodities.

Biswas plans on rejoining the EMBRAPA team to collaborate further as a 2020 recipient of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Fellowship Award. Administered by the United States Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Award honors individuals at the top of their fields, including hundreds of Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.

The Fulbright Award will afford a unique opportunity to synergize agricultural research of mutual interest to both the United States and Brazil, according to Biswas. "Bio-based polymers created from soybean oil and corn can replace synthetic products such as polyethylene bags and polystyrene foam packing materials, reducing reliance on petroleum, reducing pollution through improved biodegradability, and increasing demand for agricultural products from both U.S. and Brazilian farmers," he said.

"The Fulbright Scholarship was also founded to strengthen international relations through cross-cultural exchanges of ideas in other areas," including the arts, added Biswas, himself a photographer, artist and enthusiast of traditional Bengali music.

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