Molecules from conifers and fruit trees could lead to new sustainable polymers

We want to go away from inorganic, environmentally unfriendly materials as much as possible. However, the real switch is not going to happen until alternatives are not significantly better than those yucky plastics.

Now scientists from the University of Birmingham have developed a new way of making organic polymers from the fragrant molecules in conifers and fruit trees. This could lead to sustainable materials for biomedical applications or prototyping.

Many terpenes are derived commercially from conifer resins, such as those made by this pine. Image credit: Meanos via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Terpenes are molecules you may have never heard about, but probably use products with them all the time. They are found in a huge variety of plants and are typically used in fragrances, cosmetics and other household products. Of course, nowadays substitutes are used due to terpenes being relatively difficult to extract. But there are more ways how they could be used in other situations.

Scientists knew for a long time that terpenes could be used to make resins. Now when the world is looking for better ways to replace plastics made from petrochemicals, chemists and engineers are looking at terpenes for inspiration. Biopolymers made from terpenes could become a long awaited breakthrough, but there is a problem – we have no efficient ways to work with terpene. It is difficult to extract and work with, which is a huge disadvantage when it comes to looking for new sustainable materials.

So that is where the new method of extracting terpenes as stable resins came along. Scientists  combines them with sulfur-based organic compounds called thiols, which transformed terpenes into solid material. This material is essentially a plastic, which could be used in stereolithography – a novel 3D printing technique, where different layers are fused together using UV light.

Professor Andrew Dove, lead author of the study, said: “We need to find sustainable ways of making polymer products that do not rely on petrochemicals. Terpenes have been recognised as having real potential in this search and our work is a promising step towards being able to harness these natural products”.

This material could also be tailor made for a specific purpose, because different terpenes have different properties. Those properties include fragrances. For now smell is not entirely important for scientists, but they are interested in seeing if they could employ fragrances in some capacity as well. Further studies will look into different properties of terpenes and how they can be established in different materials for use in biomedical applications or prototyping.

The most important thing is that these materials are sustainable. By learning how to make them easily and cheaply scientists could solve many of our plastic-related problems.


Source: University of Birmingham


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