Bioplastic inspired by spider silk could replace single-use plastics

One of the most difficult-to-recycle types of plastic is the ‘microcapsule’ — a form of microplastic that’s added to the ingredients of many homecare and bodycare products. These tiny capsules then wash down the drain, where they pollute waterways because they’re so hard to detect.

In an effort to replace these capsules — as well as other types of plastic that are extremely difficult to recycle — a new startup, called Xampla, developed a plant-based alternative that dissolves easily. The startup spun out of the University of Cambridge, where a team of scientists has been working on a new material that mimics spider silk — one of the strongest natural materials, on a molecular scale.

“The molecules in spider silk are bound together very tightly even though the interactions themselves are very weak,” says Tuomas Knowles, a chemistry professor at the university and one of the authors of a new paper in Nature Communications about the research. “The way that nature manages to do that is by arranging them in a regular pattern.”

As part of their research, the scientists developed a new process to dissolve plant-based protein so it rearranges in a structure similar to that of spider silk. Requiring little energy and using sustainable ingredients such as byproducts of soybean oil production, the process has a huge sustainability advantage compared to single-use plastic.

What’s more, unlike other bioplastics, it doesn’t need to be altered chemically for the materials to hold together and be durable, but it also can easily biodegrade in a home compost bin. Though not yet tested in an ocean environment, the team expects the material to biodegrade easily in water too.

While Xampla’s new process could be used to create different types of plastics, the startup will initially focus on areas where impact is most significant, such as replacing microplastics. It plans to release its first product by the end of 2021.

Image source: Xampla

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