Sure, bioplastics don’t sound so new. They already are used for things like food wrapping and picnic utensils. But they aren’t everywhere.
Most bioplastics are less impact- and heat-resistant, as well as less moldable, than their petroleum-based counterparts, keeping them from being used in place of many plastic parts today.
Traditional bioplastics "had very poor properties – low heat resistance and low mechanical strength,” said Kenji Yao, a research scientists in Fuji Xerox’s Design for Environment Group in Kanagawa, Japan. “It [needed] every property changed.”
To increase the plastic’s impact resistance and its heat and flame resistance, Fuji Xerox collaborated with material manufacturer Unitika to develop a polymer alloy technology that enabled it to mix corn-derived polylactic acid with oil-based plastics.
The group developed two additives, as well as kneading and molding technologies, to evenly blend the two materials, delivering more strength and heat resistance.
The new plastic, which is as strong as the acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) plastic used in piping, golf club heads and Lego bricks, has a biomass content of about 30 percent, compared with 10 to 20 percent in competing bioplastics, Yao said. The Fuji Xerox plastic also reduces lifecycle carbon-dioxide emissions 16 percent compared with other biomass-based plastics, he said.
In November, Fuji Xerox began integrating the plastic into some of its products in Japan, winning a number of eco awards, and becoming the first to use bioplastic for a mechanically moving part, he said.
The group is now working to further reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions, increase the biomass content and enhance the strength of its bioplastic, he said.
However, it does face some challenges. Most notably, the bioplastic costs three times as much as ABS, although Yao hopes it will come down in the next two years.
Ken Ito, chairman and CEO of the Fuji-Xerox Palo Alto Laboratory, said the project aims to bring products with the bioplastic to the United States this year or next year.
The goal is to reduce carbon emissions and to reduce the materials made from oil, said Michiaki Yasumo, manager of the Design for Environment Group.
“We believe those [bio-based] materials will be the main line in the future,” he said, adding that the group also is investigating the possibility of making bioplastic from cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, instead of the currently used starchy biomass, such as corn starch or sugar cane.