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Research Highlight

ORNL turning plants into plastic as part of new research project

Jerry Tuskan - ORNL Greenhouse
Jerry Tuskan - Center for Bioenergy Innovation

Developing the next generation of biofuels and plant-based alternatives to petroleum-based plastics is happening at the new Center for Bioenergy Innovation in Oak Ridge.

The new center will be housed in the existing greenhouse and lab area of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL is of one of four locations chosen for the new five-year research project beginning October 1.

CBI CEO Jerry Tuskan explained that poplar trees and switchgrass are the two plants most likely to create the material needed for the new generation of fuels and manufacturing materials.

Tuskan said, "Our process is to use a bacterial conversion to take the biomass, cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, which forms the structural parts of plants, deconstruct that into sugars and lignin, convert the sugars into transportation fuels, and convert the lignin into bioproducts like plastic precursors."

Tuskan said affiliates interested in what the research produces include the Lego company that manufactures plastic building blocks.

Tuskan said the goal is for the United States to be able to replace 20 percent of its fuel for vehicles with this new generation of biofuel that is even an alternative to ethanol, and for 10 to 20 percent of plastic manufacturing to convert to plant-based raw material.