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Biodegradable Polymers
June 29, 2012   
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A team of Polish researchers working as part of the Biogratex project has designed an innovative production line for the manufacturing of non-woven fabrics from biodegradable thermoplastic polymers. Unlike many other materials, these biodegradable fabrics take only six months or so to completely break down in the environment, experts say.

The project is coordinated by the Polish Technology Platform for the Textile Industry, a research and development consortium led by the £ód¼ University of Technology.

These days, it is clear that plastics are not the marvel of modern technology they once seemed to be, researchers say. They take anywhere from 100 to several thousand years to break down in the environment. Disposed of in landfills, they are a ticking environmental bomb. The toxic substances they contain, including chlorine, penetrate into the soil and ground water and then to crops. Their incineration is an equally disastrous idea, experts say, as they release carcinogenic and other harmful compounds to the atmosphere.

This explains why many research centers in various countries, including the Polish consortium involved in the Biogratex project, are working to develop new polymers that would undergo complete decomposition and would be biocompatible, that is would not interfere with the proper functions of a living organism.

The aim of the Biogratex project is to develop new technologies for the production of fabrics made of polylactide, polyesters, aliphatic copolyesters and thermoplastic cellulose, that is polymers which undergo degradation in the natural environment. The polymers are fully broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. The products of their decomposition are carbon dioxide, water and humus. Textiles, knitted materials, foams and non-woven fabrics based on these polymers are excellent materials for application in medicine, agriculture and in the production of sanitary and filtering products.

The idea to conduct research into biodegradable polymers produced from renewable materials emerged as a result of contacts between research-and-development centers and industry. Plastics are made from petrochemicals, but petroleum deposits are shrinking rapidly. Only some of the polymers used so far in the modern economy are recycled and the disposal of polymer waste harms the environment. The use of biodegradable polymers, that is ones obtained from natural resources, not only reduces waste management costs, but is in line with the global trend to replace petroleum-based products with renewable ones.

“Biogratex is the first project of this kind being carried out in Poland on such a large scale,” says Prof. Izabella Krucińska of the £ód¼ University of Technology, who is the coordinator of the project. “We are going to see a return to natural materials, though not only those provided by nature itself.”

Three large projects of this kind are currently under way in Poland using EU structural funds:
- Biomass, coordinated by the £ód¼ University of Technology, aimed at making materials used to synthesize polymers;
- Biopol, coordinated by the Molecular and Macromolecular Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), aimed at developing a process for the production of biopolymers based on lactic acid;
- Biogratex, aimed at developing new products and showing new development opportunities to businesses.

“The primary goal is to have know-how in processing these modern polymers,” Krucińska says. A new generation of biodegradable and biocompatible products was developed on the basis of polylactide, which—also known as polylactic acid—is available commercially. Additionally, two new biodegradable polymers based on lactic acid were developed as part of the project. They have excellent processing qualities and are highly biocompatible. The biodegradable polymers are used by the Polmatex-Cenaro Research and Development Center for Textile Machinery in £ód¼ to produce non-woven fabrics. The center has designed and made a laboratory-scale spun-bond process line for their production. In this process, polylactide is directly converted into filaments, which are then integrated into a non-woven fabric.

New processes have been developed to produce continuous filaments, highly absorptive foams and semi-permeable membranes from polylactide. The scientists at the £ód¼ University of Technology have designed and built a laboratory station where one can turn polymers into fibers, strings, cables and films. The innovative polymers may be used to make products useful in agriculture, such as strings for tying up plants, protective mulching covers and frost covers. The winter covers for roses that are now widely in use will take 500 years to break down. Meanwhile, those made of the new biodegradable fabrics can be mixed with compost to become one of its components, improving its quality and the quality of the soil.

Filtering materials such as disposable face masks, which are used in large quantities in healthcare, are another group of the new products. Traditionally, they are made of polypropylene, which is not easily degradable. The researchers have already developed a process for the production of flat filters and designed the prototype of a fully biodegradable multilayer filtering half-mask.

Another large and diverse group of products where the new materials can find application are sanitary products: diapers, sanitary pads, and wet wipes. Products made of the foams, non-woven fabrics and semi-permeable membranes developed as part of the Biogratex project have disinfecting and antibacterial properties and also have a soothing effect on irritated skin.

Products for strictly medical applications are no less important. This group is composed of materials made of highly biocompatible polymers. They may be used as implants to fill bone gaps. Their innovative structure enables the growth of cells within them and the delivery of drugs which aid the healing process. The researchers have also developed two types of highly absorptive dressing materials, which speed up the healing process. They are based on foamed products and conventional non-woven fabrics.

All the medical products were tested for biocompatibility and bioactivity at Wroc³aw Medical University in southwestern Poland. Additionally, researchers at the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼, where Poland’s first Biodegradation Laboratory has been set up as part of the Biogratex project, are examining how fast polymer materials and products made of them break down in three environments: in compost, soil and water.

“The laboratories also provide services to industry,” Krucińska says. “They are approached by businesspeople who want to buy spun-bonded fabrics to make their own products.”

The Biogratex project was launched in November 2008 under the Innovative Economy Operational Program. The total cost of the project is almost zl.36 million. So far the researchers have received zl.24 million through the National Center for Research and Development.

The £ód¼ University of Technology Faculty of Material Technology and Textile Design, the £ód¼ Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers, and the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Molecular and Macromolecular Research Center in £ód¼ are the members of the consortium which has been set up as part of the Polish Technology Platform for the Textile Industry. Six other Polish research centers take part in the project as associated partners: the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Center of Polymer and Carbon Materials; the Textile Research Institute; the Polmatex-Cenaro Research and Development Center for Textile Machinery; the University of Bielsko-Bia³a (ATH); Wroc³aw Medical University; and the Cracow University of Agriculture.

Danuta K. Gruszczyńska
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