Canadian Plastics

Creating eco-friendly bioplastics from potatoes

Twenty years ago, then U.S. vice president Dan Quayle gave the gift of a potato to a generation of thankful comedians. He didn't actually mean to, of course, but by publicly misspelling "potato" as "potatoe", he provided comics with enough...

July 1, 2009   Canadian Plastics



Twenty years ago, then U.S. vice president Dan Quayle gave the gift of a potato to a generation of thankful comedians. He didn’t actually mean to, of course, but by publicly misspelling “potato” as “potatoe”, he provided comics with enough ammunition to keep their audiences laughing for months.

Today’s Canadian plastics processors looking to cash in on the ever-increasing demand for “green” products are also getting the gift of a potato. Specifically, they’re getting bioplastics made from potato starch, courtesy of the new BioPotato Network.

And they may wind up being just as grateful.

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.

IT’S ALL ABOUT STARCH

First cultivated in the Andes of South America over 8,000 years ago, the potato is the world’s fourth largest food crop, a staple food for much of the planet — and rich in vegetable starch, which is the key component to any successful bioplastics initiative.

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 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,” Dr. Liu said.

WORK TO DO

Scientists believe that further research with potato starch will continue to improve bioplastics, help broaden their applications, and create bioplastics with greater water resistance, stronger mechanical properties, and greater processability.

“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.

Perhaps even Dan Quayle would approve.

BioPotato Network (Fredericton, N.B.);

www.biopotatonetwork.ca; 506-452-3511


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