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February 2019

Could Teysha’s tuneable bioplastic change the packaging industry?

Could Teysha’s tuneable bioplastic change the packaging industry? 860 581 Packaging Gateway

Teysha Technologies has launched a new technology platform capable of producing eco-friendly bioplastics that can be chemically ‘tuned’ to meet specific requirements. Teysha’s head of research, Dr Ashlee Jahnke, explains the implications of the company’s breakthrough.   

Unlike common plastics derived from petroleum-based sources, bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass products such as vegetable oils or agricultural waste. Popular bioplastics, such as those based on polylactic acid (PLA) polymers, are also biodegradable, reducing their impact on the environment.

A recent study from Research Report Insights highlighted that global sales of bioplastics for packaging are projected to increase at a CAGR of 13.8% from 2017 to 2027. However, a key focus moving forward will be reducing the cost of bioplastic production, as well as ensuring it is as sustainable as possible.

“The chemistry is there,” says Dr Ashlee Jahnke, head of research at UK-based start-up Teysha Technologies. “The real trick that held these types of technology back is their cost and ways to manufacture them in an eco-friendly way.”

Recently, Teysha unveiled a ground-breaking new natural polycarbonate platform which, according to Jahnke, stems from years of laboratory research at Texas A&M University. The company’s technology is able to create fully biodegradable substitutes for existing petroleum-based plastics using natural products.

The result is AggiePol, Teysha’s flagship bioplastic, which is derived from sustainable feedstocks and can be physically, mechanically and chemically tuned to suit the needs of its intended application. But what are the implications of such a platform for the packaging industry?

Joe Baker: Can you explain more about what this new platform is?

Dr Ashlee Jahnke: PLA, purified terephthalic acid or some of the popular [bioplastics] have a very specific polymer structure. They can be changed via additives and the way things are processed to get different properties.

Rather than a single polymer, what we have is a platform where we can take various natural products and convert them into the building blocks that we need, and so that gives us a plug-and-play system. Depending on the target properties of the materials that we want to make, we can use different components to build into the polymer and tune things such as mechanical and thermal properties.

JB: What distinguishes this platform from other bioplastic innovations?

AJ: I’d say there’s two main distinguishing features of this platform – one being that we can tune it to various applications and properties based on the end user’s needs. We really have been focused from the beginning on the entire polymer lifecycle; we’re not just interested in sustainably sourcing the materials to make the polymers, but what happens to the polymers at the end of their useful lifetime.

For example, if they end up in our waterways they can still persist for hundreds of years and cause some of the same issues that petroleum-based plastics do. We have developed our system to be hydrolytically degradable so, after the end of its useful lifetime, if it does make its way to rivers, lakes, or oceans it can break down fairly quickly.

Depending on the co-monomers that we use or specific additives, we can speed that process up or slow it down – it’s based on moisture content, so the water coming in and breaking the bonds in the polymers. We don’t want everything to degrade in ten years. You may want to use a plastic product longer. And so there’s ways that we can work to tune that degradability.

There’s no one answer; it really depends on the application and where it’s most likely to end up after the end of its usual lifetime.

JB: How does this platform create a reduced environmental impact compared to the production of normal plastics?

AJ: First and foremost, the key to any bioplastic is sourcing feedstocks from renewable plant-based sources rather than petrochemical sources, which are typical for a lot of the polymers out there.

Step one for us is finding ways to use a renewable source, but as we thought about that we also wanted to be careful not to divert food crops because, for example, we’re using good land to grow corn to derive our feedstocks. While that might be a step in the right direction, it’s still problematic in many ways, so we’ve really turned our focus to agricultural waste products. Things that are being thrown out anyway, but that have particularly high starch content is what we’re focused on right now.

We’re really just working on adapting our chemistry to [convert] waste starch into our monomer building blocks in not only as few steps as possible, but as cleanly as possible, so minimising the energy usage that goes into those synthetic steps and recycling reagents where possible to minimise waste. So we’ve built in some recycling loops in our process as well as using CO2capture to generate some of the reagents that we use along the way.

JB: What implications could this have for the packaging industry?

AJ: Packaging is one of the very large sources of single-use plastics that are out there. It’s important – we need to seal and package and move things but we need to work towards doing that as sustainably as possible. There’s definitely been a lot of progress in using recycled polymers in packaging, but there’s also a lot of challenges in the recycling process and keeping the properties that you need – mechanically, thermally and aesthetically.

There’s a wide range of packaging types and what we’re sticking our heads out first on is some different options for cosmetics – jars, tubes, things like that. Because of the way the system works, we can move into film packaging or more rigid plastic packaging. It really will be one of those things we’ll explore as we get those first generations out on the market.

JB: Have you seen a major increase in demand for bioplastics in the packaging industry?

AJ: We’re seeing that right now. A lot of the demand is brand-driven, so brands that are already taking an eco-friendly stance are more eager to move their packaging over in that direction. As regulatory pressure and consumer awareness continues to grow, the number of brands that are doing that does seem to be increasing.

JB: A lot of people say that bioplastic is still plastic, and that solving the environmental issue will be more about human behaviour and recycling than providing alternatives – why is pursuing a platform like this still viable?

AJ: It’s a fair question. We are not against reduce, reuse, recycle – those are great goals that we’ve been making a lot of progress towards them as a society. But changing human behaviour is very difficult and it’s somewhat of a slow going process.

Recycling is getting better and that’s a positive thing but it’s still often an energy-intensive process in and of itself. So it’s another piece of the puzzle that we can add as we continue to make progress. To reduce our dependence on plastics, specifically single-use plastic, is still a positive direction. But right now there’s just still some things we need plastic for and so we really just want to step in and make those systems sustainable.

JB: Now you have this platform, what are your next steps?

AJ: Our first-generation material has shown us a proof of principle that we can get this wide range of properties and degrade on different timescales. Our focus right now has really been on research and development, so going back through and reworking that chemistry to prove the platform and really doing it in a way that worked so that we could make the materials and make sure that they were worth pursuing further.

So now we’ve been going through and developing so that when we do scale up our chemistry is as green as possible. We’ve had good success with that, so now we are working with a couple of partners that will start making some packaging! [We are doing] smaller orders initially to start getting the materials out there in the consumers hands and see how that goes.


Solving the plastic problem with biopolymers

Solving the plastic problem with biopolymers 800 533 developer

Two scientists from Teysha Technologies discuss how organic material can now be turned into a viable plastic substitute

In this interview, we talk to two scientists from Teysha Technologies, Prof Karen L. Wooley, Chief Technology Officer and Dr Ashlee A. Jahnke, Project Research Scientist about solving the plastic problem with biopolymers, including how organic biomass can now be turned into a viable plastic substitute.

As policymakers continue to crack down on plastics, with the EU Parliament recently approving a ban on single-use plastics, businesses are increasingly under pressure to source earth-friendly bioplastics for their products.

© Alikaj2582 |

Can you tell us about the latest developments in biopolymers?

Karen: Over the past couple of decades, we’ve become keenly aware of the potential negative impacts that may occur for polymer materials that persist beyond their useful lifetime. This has led us to consider the full lifecycle of plastics at the initial design stage. One way of addressing this is by building polymers from natural products so that they are capable of degradation to regenerate the natural-product building blocks.

Ashlee: This kind of technology is truly more of a platform than a single polymer system, providing inherent versatility in the properties that can be achieved. It can be thought of as a plug-and-play system where various modified natural-product monomers and various co-monomers can be used.

In addition to co-monomers, various additives can be used to modify the properties of the final polymer produced. This versatility allows for the formation of a variety of materials that can vary greatly in their thermal and mechanical properties.

How does this technology compare to existing petroleum-based polycarbonates?

Karen: A significant advantage of this kind of technology is the use of natural, sustainable feedstocks to generate polycarbonate materials with the ability to tune the physical, mechanical and chemical properties by controlling the chemistry, formulation and polymerization conditions.

Because natural building blocks offer higher chemical diversity than typical hydrocarbon sources, this method can be used to tune the degradation rates of intact material systems. Most current polycarbonates are prepared from hydrocarbon-based petrochemicals and achieve varied properties through molar mass control, crystallinity control and blending with other polymers, with fewer opportunities to fine-tune individual properties.

Moreover, the most common polycarbonate is poly(Bisphenol A carbonate), which generates bisphenol A (BPA) upon hydrolytic breakdown – for example, under the extreme conditions in a dishwasher. Since BPA has been implicated in several diseases, avoiding its use as a building block for engineering plastics is of high importance.

How can the polymers be tuned and what does this mean for things like durability and biodegradability?

Karen: The strength, toughness, durability and longevity of these polymers are dependent on the properties of the specific monomers used in polymerization and can be tuned for various applications. The material properties range from flexible to rigid, with degradation occurring over a period of weeks to years, and depending on the polymer composition and the environmental conditions.

Ashlee: These new kinds of polymers also have varied thermal stabilities depending on the composition and have degradation temperatures that are generally similar to but in some cases, lower than other polycarbonate and polyester materials. Another area to consider is how well biopolymers and their processing methods respond to additives, and whether they’re compatible with various dyes, scents, oils, plasticizers and nanoparticles.

The main mechanism of polymer degradation is through hydrolytic degradation, allowing for a breakdown in any environment containing moisture and does not require microbial activity, anaerobic conditions or industrial composting.

To determine the best disposal methods for a complete breakdown, we’re still measuring and testing full degradation profiles in various potential disposal conditions – like in waterways, landfills and composting.

What renewable sources can be used as feedstock to make these biopolymers?

Ashlee: This technology can use a wide variety of renewable, natural products for monomer feedstocks. The current focus is on the use of polyhydroxyl natural products, including those derived from starches, as well as agricultural waste products.

What kinds of material applications are these biopolymers used in?

Karen: Natural product-derived polycarbonates have applications ranging from single-use packaging and cosmetic microbeads to durable goods.

One significant feature of the current system that is unique from other bioplastics is the diversity of functional groups incorporated into the polymer. These include both carbonates and esters, which are traditionally used in degradable polymer systems, and less commonly used thioether linkages. The sulphur content in the final polymer may impart unique properties that have not yet been explored.

Further, the sugar monomers, which serve as a structural component of the polymer framework, have both alcohol and alkenyl functionalities available for modification, either pre- or post-polymerization, with various chemical groups to impart specifically desired properties to the final polymer system.

About the interviewees

Prof Karen L. Wooley

Professor Karen L. Wooley is the inventor and Chief Technology Officer at Teysha Technologies. She is the W. T. Doherty-Welch Chair in Chemistry and a Presidential Impact Fellow at Texas A&M University, where she holds appointments in the departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering.