Renewable materials from plant fibres
The FiDiPro (Finland Distinguished Professor Programme) group working at the Aalto University School of Chemical Technology is exploring how plant-based xylans can be used to produce valuable renewable materials by combining enzyme technology and chemistry. Professor Emma Master from the University of Toronto, Canada brings strong international expertise to the group.
Emma Master has worked at the Aalto University Department of Biotechnology and Chemical Technology since the beginning of September. The research group led by Master includes a researcher from both the Bioprocess Engineering group and the Polymer Technology group. “This is a good thing because now we have expertise in both chemistry and biotechnology for developing the production of new plant-based materials. The aim is to use plant fibre as a raw material for high-performance, renewable packaging materials.”
According to Master, it is important to find plant-based alternatives for plastic packaging. “The problem with plastic packaging is that it is often used once and then thrown-away, to accumulates in landfills. Our objective is to develop plant-based packaging materials that will degrade rapidly in nature.”
Master explains that currently the weakness of plant-based packaging materials is that they do not tolerate moisture well which is why they cannot be used for packing liquids or gases. “Therefore our aim is to develop chemical-enzymatic tools to control the reactivity and barrier properties of plant biomaterials, so in addition to being renewable, they will provide functional advantages over plastic-based alternatives.”
Enzymes as tools
Master’s research group is harnessing the specificity of enzyme catalysts to make the plant fibres react in the desired way. The researchers either produce the enzymes themselves or acquire them from other sources. According to Master, the challenge is to make the enzymes react efficiently on polymeric substrates and in combination with targeted chemical catalytic processes. “Plant fibres consist of many different sugars that can be modified to create new combinations and performance characteristics.”
Master says that she feels very comfortable in the Finnish research group. “The group has given me a warm welcome. The working atmosphere is excellent and inspiring. People work hard in Finland and achieve results, but they also know how to enjoy their free time."
After completing her doctoral thesis, Master worked in Sweden at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. She says that she took a liking to the Scandinavian way of working during her stay in Sweden. “Perhaps my positive experiences from Sweden made me so enthusiastic and ready to come to Finland when the opportunity presented itself.”
Professor Matti Leisola, matti.leisola [at] aalto [dot] fi
Aalto University School of Chemical Technology