Features, Sustainability

Cleaning Queensland’s oceans

Dr Ruirui Qiao from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology is working to refine new polymerisation techniques.

Dr Ruirui Qiao from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is working with her team of researchers to refine new polymerisation techniques – the team’s goal is to provide a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics; she spoke with Manufacturers’ Monthly to explain.

Dr Ruirui Qiao will be working with AIBN colleagues, Professors Tom Davis, Xuan Pang and Xuesi Chen from the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry (CIAC), also in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The CAS already has more than 20 years of experience in producing degradable plastics for various manufacturing applications and by partnering with the research team, the institute will bring a wealth of knowledge and assets to the project.

Dr Qiao says that building the relationships between Australian and Chinese research groups will strengthen their respective manufacturing capabilities.

“We are fostering collaboration between research groups in Queensland and China to further our strengths in polymer science and additive manufacturing,” she said.

The research project was recently accelerated when the collaboration received $125,000 dollars from the Queensland-Chinese Academy of Sciences Collaborative Science Fund.

The fund has enabled the team to purchase new equipment necessary for their research, and to also support the researchers working on the project.

Researching solutions for Queensland’s ‘pollution crisis’

The longevity and low degradability of conventional plastics poses a threat to Australian marine ecosystems – including the Great Barrier Reef, a pivotal part of Queensland’s tourism revenue and its marine ecosystem.

“This is really important, because plastic pollutants are actually killing more than one million seabirds and around 10,000 marine animals every year,” Dr Qiao said.

“We are trying to develop new seawater degradable plastics that are compatible with 3D printing technology and biodegradable polymer developed by our CAS partner from China.

“This is what inspired me to establish this new platform and to work with these materials,” she explained.

Their 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 – which is expected to exceed $9.5 billion by that time.

The crisis

Queensland’s grand jewel, the Great Barrier Reef, currently contributes $6.4 billion dollars to the Australian economy each year and supports around 64,000 full-time jobs.

Plastic debris and pollution pose a threat to Queensland’s marine ecosystems, and subsequently, all the industries that depend on it

The Queensland Government has already committed more than $1 billion since 2015 on initiatives and actions to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

More than 80 per cent of marine debris found in the Reef is plastic, which can break up into smaller pieces and travel vast distances, increasing the impact far beyond Australia’s shores.

1.5 million tonnes of plastic are consumed each year which equates to approximately 65kg of plastic for every man, woman and child in Australia – only 20 per cent of that plastic waste is then recycled.

Two per cent of all plastic leaks into the environment which equates to roughly 300,000 tonnes of waste per year.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority categorises plastic waste based on the size of the debris; the primary categories of debris are microplastics, macroplastics and secondary microplastics.

Microplastics are plastic items less than five millimetres in size – this can include microbeads from personal care products and microfibres from synthetic clothing materials.

Whereas macroplastics are plastic items that are greater than five millimetres in size, such as bottles or straws.

Secondary microplastics have been broken up from large pieces of macroplastics, including abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear – like crab pots and fishing nets.

Challenges for the research team

The research team has encountered several challenges throughout their research – such as creating degradable plastics that are also compatible with 3D printing technology and creating plastics that completely degrade in high-saline environments.

The primary challenge lies in synthesising degradable materials that are easy to produce, durable, customisable, and sustainable.

“Some industries require special shapes for certain applications made with these plastic materials, but how to combine these with 3D printing technology is currently a challenge,” Dr Qiao said.

The team has already synthesised prototypes, but until research has been completed, it is still unclear whether they will remain completely degradable in marine environments.

“We need these materials to be degraded under the same water found in ocean environments, which contain much higher levels of saline relative to soil,” Dr Qiao said.

“The temperature in the ocean is a little bit lower than the temperature on land. There are so many differences between different environments,” she said.

Establishing what will work

The research team is working to establish a catalogue of plastics that are degradable in seawater, then test these materials in marine environments.

The research process will examine the viability of these materials breaking down sustainably.

“We want to develop an original library of seawater-degradable polymer materials at first and we will want to test their degradation in the sea water environment,” Dr Qiao said.

The research team plan to eventually produce and distribute their material to the manufacturing market once the research has been completed.

“We will want to also integrate this type of polymer materials into the 3D printing technology. In the end, we want to establish the bulk synthesis of this plastic materials.” Dr Qiao said.

Dr Qiao said one technique they will use – called ring-opening polymerisation – will allow 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 break down to a molecular state in marine environments,” she said.

Degradable plastics in manufacturing

The degradable plastic materials will have various manufacturing applications once the research process is completed.

The CES have already established these materials in agriculture, and they have successfully used the plastic materials as protective membranes for crops.

Dr Qiao says that the research team anticipates that these plastic materials will also be used in pharmaceutical and biomedical industries.

“We will be more looking at biomedical applications initially,” she said.

“There are advantages to using degradable plastics in the medical field. The utilisation of biodegradable plastics holds great potential for reducing environmental impact,” she said.

“By incorporating biodegradable materials into healthcare products, such as medical devices, packaging, and more, the industry can reduce its ecological footprint.”

“Degradable plastics can be strategically employed for controlled drug release, reducing the risk of infection.”

“The medical and pharmaceutical applications can include drug encapsulation, surgical instruments, tissue fabrication, as well as customised prostheses.”

Drug encapsulation made from degradable plastics can also optimise outcomes for patients.

“Compared with conventional capsules, degradable plastic capsules offer a tailored drug release mechanism, optimising therapeutic results while mitigating side effects,” Dr Qiao said.

“They also bolster drug stability, safeguarding delicate compounds, and hold the potential to facilitate precision delivery to specific tissues or organs.”

Dr Qiao continued to explain that degradable plastics can enhance the efficiency and sustainability of medical instruments, which are designed for short-term contact with tissues or fluids.

“This includes items like surgical implants, such as sutures, clips, and pins,” she said.

“As well as drug delivery devices, wound dressings, tissue scaffolds, and certain types of endoscopic tools.”

“The use of degradable plastics in these instruments can reduce the need for additional surgical procedures to remove them, as they can gradually break down and be absorbed by the body.”

“This ultimately improves patient comfort and reduces the risk of complication,” Dr Qiao added.

The research team have plans to manufacture and market the material on a global scale – they already have established avenues through their current research partners.

“We are very confident that, in the future, we will translate our product to either the Australian or the Chinese market,” Dr Qiao said.

They aim to commercialise a new line of products in Australia and China within five years to eventually replace traditional plastics and tap into a biodegradable market – which is expected to exceed $9.5 bn within that time frame.

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