Please activate JavaScript!
Please install Adobe Flash Player, click here for download

uni'wissen 02(4)-2011_ENG

The Earth is swimming in garbage. An average of 13,000 pieces of plastic waste are floating on every square kilometer of the ocean surface. Innumerable bags, cups and containers made of or coated with plastic are piled up along count- less coasts, on roadsides, and at rest areas. They will take hundreds of years to decompose in nature. What’s more, the supply of petroleum used to make this long-lasting material is dwin- dling. Dr. Pieter Samyn from the Institute of For- est Utilization and Work Science (FOBAWI) of the University of Freiburg is looking for ways out of this dilemma. The 2011 Robert Bosch Junior Professor wants to replace some plastics de- rived from fossil fuels with biopolymers made of renewable resources. By applying a biologically based coating to paper, for instance, he can give it new properties and make it watertight or per- meable for water, fat, air, and other substances. “Conceivable innovations include packaging that helps foods keep longer because less oxy- gen escapes through them,” says Samyn. Or piz- za cartons and bags for French fries that don’t allow any fat to seep through. Samyn is positive- ly bursting with ideas. His materials are oil free, compostable, and durable. The 33-year-old uses biopolymers – polymers occurring naturally in living organisms like corn or other agricultural products – as renewable raw materials for his compounds and combines them with small wood components. But no tree must be sacrificed for the production of Samyn’s new materials: The wood particles he uses are byproducts of paper production which were previously only burned up to produce energy. In addition, his materials do not include any substances that are harmful for the environment. Older coatings, on the other hand, often contain fluorine and are difficult to recycle since they can no longer be separated from the cellulose fibers of the product they are applied to. Finally, his approach also saves raw materials and makes the products lighter, be- cause the materials scientist has found a way to apply much thinner coatings that also function much better. This is made possible through the use of wood components that are only 100 to 200 nanometers long – a nanometer is one mil- lionth of a meter. Closing the Gap between Lab and Factory The project convinced an international com- mittee led by Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer, formerly German Federal Minister for the Environment and director of the environmental program of the United Nations – and as a result Samyn was awarded the 2011 Robert Bosch Junior Profes- sorship for the Sustainable Use of Natural Re- “Conceivable innovations include packaging that helps foods keep longer because less oxygen escapes through them” 25uni'wissen 04