Scientists convert peas into plastic
Scientists have unveiled the world’s first plant protein material, aimed at providing global manufacturers with a sustainable alternative to microplastics.
The breakthough by Xampla, a University of Cambridge spin-off, involves the development of single-use plastic made from plants such as peas. It received £2m seed funding in April from global tech investors Amadeus Capital Partners.
Research, headed by protein scientist and Fellow of St John’s College, Professor Tuomas Knowles and Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia, was inspired by the way that spiders use protein to create silk.
A spider eats a fly and creates a protein from that at ambient temperatures – Knowles and his team found that proteins have the ability to self-assemble and to take different forms, similar to the process when an egg is boiled, and the clear liquid turns white.
Xampla has now managed to control that natural self-assembly of proteins in a process called supra-molecular engineering.
Unlike current alternatives to microplastics – which are based on plant polysaccharides such as cellulose and algae – Xampla’s plant protein materials do not rely on chemical cross-linking for their performance. This enables them to decompose quickly and fully in the natural environment.
The product’s initial target is the US$12bn microencapsulation market, which includes everything from single-use bags to sachets. Manufacturers of home and personal care products currently rely on non-biodegradable synthetic polymer capsules in this area, but the single-use plastics are set to be banned by the EU by 2021.
The plant protein plastic allows products to cling onto fabric and release a perfume like the traditional product – with the crucial difference that when it is released from the washing machine into the water course or sea, it is edible to microbes and sea creatures.
Amadeus Capital Partners principal Amelia Armour said: “Xampla is a great example of deep tech emerging from the UK research base at exactly the right time to respond to regulatory changes and consumer trends around plastic. We’re excited to be investing alongside an impact investor and backing a world-class science team that can offer commercial solutions for multiple industries.”
Xampla CEO Simon Hombersley added: “Our mission is to reduce the impact of single-use plastic, and our initial commercial focus is on intentionally-added microplastics. With our new plant protein material, we are committed to helping manufacturers make the transition from traditional plastics to high-performance alternatives that protect the planet.