University of Queensland Researchers Developing Salt Water-Degradable Plastics

In an effort to help oceans cope with the surge of plastic waste, University of Queensland (UQ), researchers are developing a plastic that breaks down in seawater they hope will help turn the tide on marine waste.

Dr. Ruirui Qiao from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology is refining new polymerisation techniques for affordable and biodegradable plastic to replace existing products.

Dr Qiao is working with AIBN colleagues Professor Tom Davis and Professor Xuan Pang and Professor Xuesi Chen from the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry on the project.

The team is developing a range of high-value, customised seawater-degradable plastics using 3D-printing techniques developed by Dr. Qiao’s research group at AIBN, and polymeric materials generated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The collaboration has received A$125,000 from the Queensland-Chinese Academy of Sciences Collaborative Science Fund to accelerate the work over the next two years.

“Our oceans are being clogged by long-lasting plastic containers, bags and even microplastics – which pose a significant threat to ecosystems including millions of seabirds and mammals,” Dr Qiao said.

“Awareness of the problem has risen in the past few years, but the sheer volume of waste going into the water means we need to find new solutions. We think plastic degradation technologies could be part of the answer,” she added.

Dr. Qiao said one technique they will use, called ring-opening polymerisation, allows them to precisely control the mechanical strength and shape of the plastics while giving the plastics a low-toxic polyester ‘backbone’.

“This means the plastics are able to break down to a molecular state in marine environments,” she said.

The goal is to commercialise a new line of products in Australia and China within five years to replace traditional plastics and tap into a biodegradable market expected to exceed A$9.5 billion by that time.

“Effective seawater-degradable polymer plastics will reduce plastic debris in oceans, boosting the health of ecosystems and the quality of life in communities around the world,” said Dr. Qiao.