Creating Plastics from Beef Proteins

They look a little like fake cookies, the kind you’d find in a child’s toy oven, but the chocolate brown plastic discs created by Canada’s University of Alberta researcher David Bressler and his lab represent the future of ingenious recycling.

Using the specified risk materials of beef carcasses that were sidelined from the value-added production process after bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) devastated the Canadian beef industry in 2003, Bressler, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Agricultural, Food, and Nutritional Science has collaborated with industry, government, and other researchers to forge cattle proteins into heavy-duty plastics that could soon be used in everything from car parts to compact disc cases.

The University of Alberta is the only post-secondary facility to be approved by the Canada Food Inspection Agency to conduct research involving turning high-risk proteins into safe, sustainable materials.

By finding a way to convert these animal by-products into plastics for industrial use, Bressler and his team, which also includes Phillip Choi, a professor in the university’s Faculty of Engineering, hope to divert tons of protein waste from landfills across North America, shift to using renewable resources instead of petrochemicals to make plastics, and boost flagging profit levels in the cattle industry.

Beef producers took an economic hit when by-products such as blood and bone were regulated out of the rendering process after BSE was found in Canada for fear the material contained deadly prions – infectious proteins that cause BSE.

“If we can get more fundamental value back into the rendering process, it will help the livestock industry more than any government policy,” Bressler said.

A patent has been filed on the thermal process used to turn protein from bovine by-products into plastics. Using high temperatures, the proteins are broken into small pieces then cross-linked to other protein molecules to create a network that forms a rigid structure.

The new plastics from Bressler’s lab are currently being tested by The Woodbridge Group, a car parts manufacturer. Current funding is focused on research that further experiments with the product to see if the plastics can be mixed with renewable fibers such as hemp. If successful, the resulting bio-composite material could be used in high-strength materials such as building structural supports.

Bressler believes the bio-friendly plastics, though still in the development stage, are poised to become an innovative addition to the manufacturing industry.

“The plastic industry is under pressure to increase the renewable content in its products,” he stated. “As a result, this project offers the opportunity to do just that, and at the same time help send value back to rural Alberta and the beef sector.”

Bressler’s work is supported by the Alberta Prion Research Institute, PrioNet Canada, and the Alberta Livestock and
Meat Agency.

October 2011 RENDER | back