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Scientists develop eco-friendly material, possible substitute for plastics

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By Sahana Ghosh

Kolkata: Indian scientists have created an environmentally-friendly material from renewable natural marine resources that could eventually replace the fossil fuel-derived plastics commonly used in a variety of applications.

The eco-friendly substance, developed from seaweed extracts, has the potential to substitute plastic in applications like packaging material and ropes and thereby reduce dependency on fossil fuels for production of plastic products, the scientists say.

“The building blocks of plastics and synthetics, we use every day are mostly derived from fossil oils or crude oils,” Pushpito Ghosh, a professor of chemical engineering at Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology, told IANS on the phone.

“Using materials derived from renewable natural sources such as seaweeds on a large scale, could help reduce dependency on finite fossil fuel reserves,” said the former director of the CSIR-Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute and one of the study authors.

He was the director when the research began.

The researchers used extracts of three seaweed species cultivated in India and treated it with a common industrial chemical called vinyl acetate to make it water repellent.

The intention was to fabricate ropes from this partly-synthetic and partly-natural substance and replace the nylon ropes used in seaweed farming in marine waters.

But there is more to the achievement than just biodegradable ropes.

Plastic bottles and wrapping materials continue to contribute to the pollution.
Plastic bottles and wrapping materials continue to contribute to the pollution.

“It could replace plastic in many ways, such as in packaging material, ropes for drying clothes, bag handles and other home decor items when produced on a large scale,” Ramavatar Meena, a senior scientist at the institute, told IANS on the phone.

Seaweeds, which are marine plants, are known as super foods for their high nutrient content.

A source of industrially important gums and gelling or thickening agents, they grow naturally along the coast of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“The rope made from seaweed extracts lasted over 45 days in the field and over six months in sea water under laboratory conditions. On the other hand, it degraded on being buried in the soil,” Meena said.

Although the vinyl acetate constituent of the novel material is biodegradable to a certain extent, Ghosh said the next challenge is to ramp up the level of natural content (seaweed extracts) and further improve its properties.

July 3 is International Plastic Bag Free Day
July 3 is International Plastic Bag Free Day

Making the raw material cost-effective is another important target of the team, he said.

“Plastic is produced on a massive scale. To be competent, we are looking at ways to cultivate the seaweed on a grander scale,” Ghosh added.

The study is published online in RSC Advances journal. The other members of the team are J.P. Chaudhary, Dharmesh Chejara and K. Eswaran.

(IANS)

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Researchers Look for Alternatives To Chemical Fertilizers for a Cleaner Environment

Too many nutrients in the water leads to poor water quality by causing hazardous algal blooms.

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Fertilizers
A farming woman spreads fertilizer in a paddy field. Flickr

Fertilizer is made of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Chemical fertilizers require huge amounts of energy to produce. But there are other, natural and more readily available sources.

The University of Michigan, with support from the National Science Foundation, is working at making our water cleaner, and our agriculture more sustainable, by capturing one of those sources, rather than flushing it down the toilet.

On a hot summer afternoon near Brattleboro, Vermont, farmer Dean Hamilton has fired up his tractor and is fertilizing his hay field — with human urine.

It takes a bit of time to get used to, says environmental engineer Nancy Love.

“I’ve been surprised at how many people actually get beyond the giggle factor pretty quickly,” she said, “and are willing to listen.”

Fine-tuning the recycling

Rich Earth Institute, a nonprofit, is working with Love and her team. Abraham Noe-Hays says they are fine-tuning new methods to recycle urine into fertilizer.

“There’s a great quote by Buckminster Fuller about how pollution is nothing but the resources that we’re not harvesting, and that we allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value,” he said.

Harvesting the resource of urine — which is, after all, full of the same nutrients as chemical fertilizer — will fix two problems at once: eliminate waste and create a natural fertilizer.

The Rich Earth Institute has been using urine as fertilizer since 2012. Kim Nace says they collect about 26,000 liters a year, thanks to a loyal group of dedicated donors.

“We now have people who have some source-separating toilets in their homes. We also have people who have 55 gallon (200-liter) barrels where they collect and then we transport to our farms, and we’ve also got a large urine depot,” Nace said.

`fertilizers
Fertilizers. Wikimedia Commons

They pasteurize the urine to kill any microbes, and then it is applied directly onto hay fields like Hamilton’s.

Next level of project

Now that they’ve partnered with the University of Michigan, Love says they’re looking to take their project to the next level.

“There are three things we really are trying to do with the urine in this kind of next phase. We’re trying to concentrate it. We’re trying to apply technologies to reduce odor, and we’re trying to deal with trace contaminants like the pharmaceuticals,” she said.

Dealing with pharmaceuticals is an important issue. Heat urine kills germs but has no effect on chemicals like drugs that pass through our bodies.

“We know pharmaceuticals are a problem for aquatic organisms and water systems,” Love said. “It’s debatable about the impact on human health at very, very low levels. Independent of that, I think most people would prefer that they not be in their food.”

Fertilizers
Farmer Scott Halpin is facing another year of high prices for seed and fertilizer, and low prices for the corn and soybeans his family is planting on farmland outside Morris, Illinois.

21st century infrastructure

For Love, this is all about redesigning our wastewater infrastructure for the 21st century. Too many nutrients in the water leads to poor water quality by causing hazardous algal blooms.

“Our water emissions are going into very sensitive water bodies that are vulnerable to these nutrient loads,” she said. “We need to change that dynamic. And if we can capture them and put them to a beneficial use, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Also Read: Common Plastic Chemical May Increase Breast Cancer Risk

Their efforts could make agriculture greener and our waterways cleaner. (VOA)