Since pine sap is made of compounds similar to those in petroleum, they can be chemically modified using polymerization so that plastics which have biodegradable characteristics can be produced.
With the harmful effects of pollution becoming more and more evident, researchers are investigating alternatives to materials made with petroleum. University of South Carolina’s Chuanbing Tang is hoping that the answer to the problem lies in conifers, that is, pines, firs and other similar evergreens.
The research is based on modifying the resins produced by conifers through polymerization processes to form more eco-friendly, biodegradable compounds, compared to petroleum-based plastics.
Although renewable plastics are currently inferior to petroleum-based ones, a National Science Foundation CAREER award to Tang’s laboratory means that the lab can further explore other refinements possible to put them on a par with petroleum-based plastics.
Tang’s team includes Chinese Academy of Forestry’s Fuxiang Chu and Perry Wilbon, who joined him in the publication of his terpenoids, terpenes and rosins review in the Macromolecules Rapid Communications’ January issue.
According to Tang, the aim of the project is to understand how the compositions and architectural arrangements of macromolecules affect a material’s properties. With that knowledge, they can better alter the structures of evergreen sap molecules to achieve the desirable characteristics of petroleum-based plastics.
Tang’s research shows that tree-derived molecules contain the aromatic and cycloaliphatic structures ideal for polymerization. The molecules also repel water and have rigid structures and would therefore make good plastics. Added to that, since they are produced from biological sources, these plastics could be biodegraded by microbes when no longer needed.