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18 June, 2021 - 13:46 By Tony Quested

Xampla’s plant protein substitute signals end of single-use plastics

Cambridge University spin-out Xampla has unveiled a significant advance in commercialisation of a new plant protein substitute for fossil fuel single-use plastics.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Knowles Lab have detailed how they can create a polymer film from plant protein that is sustainable, scalable and 100 percent natural.

Made entirely from plant protein which can be sourced as a by-product of the agriculture industry, the resulting material can be consumed in nature after use like any natural waste, leaving no pollutants behind.

The material’s functionality is consistent with conventional plastic, but it requires no chemical cross-linking used in bio-polymers to give them the strength and flexibility of plastic. The chemicals used in cross-linking are often unsustainable and can even leave toxic pollutants behind once disposed of.

The research shows how the scientists are able to naturally assemble plant proteins so the final structure is very similar to spider silk. The breakthrough is the first time these structures have been shown in a material that derives from plant protein.  

Through a process involving acetic acid and water, ultrasonication and heat, the plant proteins are transformed in an energy-efficient way using easily obtainable, sustainable ingredients.

The scientists were inspired by spiders’ silk which is weight-for-weight stronger than steel but has weak molecular bonds, meaning it can break down easily. They sought to understand the building blocks of this natural phenomenon, with the aim to create a material with the same molecular properties. 

Professor Tuomas Knowles who led the research said: “One of the key breakthroughs is that we can supply this product on a large scale, and it can replace plastic in very specific applications. We have proved it’s possible to solve the single-use plastics problem.”

Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia, co-author of the paper and Xampla’s head of Research said: “It’s amazing to realise that a discovery you make in a lab can have a big impact on solving a global problem. That’s essentially why we are doing this – we really love the science, but we also wanted to do something meaningful about solving the overwhelming problem of plastic waste.”

CEO Simon Hombersley said that there was huge future potential for the technology.

He said: “We are focusing on two launch markets, addressing two key plastic pollution targets – microplastics and single-use films. We’re developing a solution for fragrance encapsulation. Most personal care and homecare products contain tiny fragrance capsules, usually made of melamine formaldehyde.

“In fabric conditioners, these are designed to release fragrances in the wash and as you wear your clothes. These microplastics are being banned by the EU. This is a $1.1 billion market.

“We have a launch product as a soluble film. These films are commonly used in dishwasher tablets and made from PVA – a synthetic, polluting material.  Although it dissolves, it doesn’t degrade.

“Our plant protein films can provide the same function, but with a 100 per cent natural and non-polluting product. The PVA market overall is around $400 million.

“These initial focus markets are our priority for the next two years. We expect initial products on the market for films next year and by 2025 these materials will be widely used in our homes in cleaning products, personal care products, cosmetics and food packaging.

“Initially, Xampla is making the materials itself. As we scale, we will be working with supply chain partners. Ultimately, to make an impact and create a successful business, we need to be a drop-in solution with existing plastics manufacturing partners and processes.”

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