That Christmas Tree Smell Just Got a Lot More Interesting

January 5, 2017 | Maggie Romuld

Photo credit: Pixabay

Visible progress in the quest to produce bioplastics from renewable resources.

Scientists from the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath recently announced some progress in their quest to develop a renewable plastic from pinene, a naturally occurring molecule found in pine needles.

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Pinene is the fragrant chemical that gives pine trees their distinctive scent; the woodsy smell that many of us associate with Christmas. Pinene is a terpene, a group of compounds primarily synthesized in plants, particularly in coniferous trees such as pine. Terpenes are widely used for flavoring and fragrance, and are the principal component of essential oils in many plants.

Chemists have been turning to plants to develop platform chemicals – the simple, cheaply produced chemicals used as building blocks from which other more complicated chemicals are built. There has been a growing interest in using various terpenes as replacements for petrochemicals because terpene molecules are chemically similar to molecules in crude oil. They are not the same, but they contain only hydrogen and carbon atoms, so chemists are familiar with the processes and equipment needed to work with them. It is more difficult, and more expensive, to transform other plant-based materials, especially those containing oxygen atoms.

Terpenes are also attractive because they are a renewable resource generated in large quantities as a waste product from the lumber industry. Even so, demand could far outstrip supply and chemists are trying to engineer bacteria to produce larger quantities of terpenes.  According to The Royal Society of Chemistry, scientists in the US have already succeeded in genetically modifying bacteria to metabolize sugar and turn it into terpenes. The University of Bath team, however, is looking at processes that don’t rely on sugar to produces terpenes.

Professor Matthew Davidson, Director of the CSCT and Whorrod Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technologies, said in a press release that “This research is part of a wider project that looks at using bio-based chemicals like pinene as a sustainable starting material for making a range of useful products, in the place of petrochemicals. This reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and provides a renewable feedstock that has the potential to revolutionise the chemical industry.”

While research is ongoing, the scientists completed a laboratory-scale proof of principle. They recently published their results in Polymer Chemistry.

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