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Bioplastic

NEC's breakthrough in creating a heat-resistant, bioplastic with reinforced strength. [ 03:17 ]

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NEC is committed to corporate social responsibility. That means that NEC is committed to the environment. The company is aware that the use of petroleum based material like plastics eats up 20% of the world's oil production.

THE CHALLENGE

In Tsukuba, Japan, NEC have set this as their number one challenge. They are researching new materials – bioplastic. Plastics made from plants.

They began with a plastic made from corn. As the corn grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air. This plastic is renewable and recyclable. But its properties aren't good enough for all our everyday uses, in particular for electronic products. It's not heat resistant and, under pressure, it cracks.

Dr. Masatoshi Iji and his team wanted to discover a super bioplastic that could be made without using petrochemicals.

THE SOLUTION

Amazingly they found the answer in a remarkable plant called Kenaf.

DR MASATOSHI IJI:

In order to rely on plant-based materials – bioplastics - we had to choose and develop new additives. In this sense, it was extremely difficult.

Kenaf takes 6 months to go from seed to harvest and just one field, such as here at the Nature Trust, absorbs twice the carbon dioxide compared to the same area of rain forest in the Amazon.

THE TECHNOLOGY

By manipulating the fibers of Kenaf and adding them to basic bioplastic, they discovered that, not only was it environmentally friendly, but it had other remarkable properties. It had turned into a super bioplastic.

DR MASATOSHI IJI:

For example, we were extremely astonished to discover that products mixed with Kenaf have heat resistance and strength of more than 1.7 times that of normal bioplastics.

The team also developed a new bioplastic with an extraordinary magical property – shape memory. Apply heat and force and it can be moulded into any shape - heat it again, and it returns back to its original form. An added benefit – it melts at high temperatures, which means it is also recyclable.

DR MASATOSHI IJI:

This is a real first! A new intelligent bioplastic. It's the first time that bioplastics have both functions…It's recyclable and it has shape memory. This is something truly original!

THE BENEFITS

DoCoMo's‘Eco' phone, made from NEC's Kenaf-based plastic, is already on the market. By 2010, 10% of NEC's electronic products will be made from bioplastic. That means a significant reduction in petroleum depletion. And as bioplastic is also biodegradable, it means a reduction too in wasteful landfill. Bioplastics is just one area in which NEC is committing resources in order to develop far reaching solutions for a healthier and safer environment.


Overview

Bioplastic Img The figures surrounding plastic are astounding. About 200 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide every year, and more than 50% of them are not recycled. Petroleum-based products, including plastic, comprise almost 20% of the world's total world petroleum production, contributing significantly to the emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and thus global warming.

Inside a research lab at NEC Corporation, just outside Tokyo, works Dr. Masatoshi Iji, a man at the forefront of research into bioplastics. Bent over a laboratory bench, he is chopping up a bioplastic resembling a wooden shaft into very fine fibres.

Dr. Iji is researching the future of bioplastics a material which, at first glance, appears to be the stuff of magic. Making plastic out of renewable raw materials, such as corn or potato, instead of oil was dreamt about by scientists and environmentalists since the process was first developed in the 1950s.

But there was a problem.

Most bioplastic is only suitable for limited uses, such as the common plastic spoon in your local coffee shop. Why? Because bioplastics don't stand up well to harsh environments like extremes of heat or cold, which makes their function limited to relatively mundane uses.

NEC, however, had other plans. In line with its policy on corporate social responsibility, it realised that by increasing the amount of bioplastics it used in its electronic components, it could use less petroleum-based plastics in its products. Not only that, NEC could license the core technology, while contributing to the environment at the same time.

Typically of NEC, it set about the hard task of funding the long-term research needed to achieve this goal. It attracted Dr. Masatoshi Iji to its Fundamental and Environmental Research Laboratories and has supported him for the past five years in the development of this technology.

Three years ago he discovered that adding the fibre of an innocuous woody plant called kenaf to the production of bioplastics would give it the heat-resistant properties it needed to house mobiles and PCs. But there is another benefit to the use of this fast-growing plant. Kenaf absorbs CO2, global-warming gas, at three times the rate of normal plants from the atmosphere. In other words, a hectare of kenaf will absorb two to three times more carbon as a hectare in the Amazon forest. No wonder Dr. Iji is excited.

"We had never foreseen that kenaf would have such amazing characteristics – to make bioplastics this heat-resistant and strong. We were absolutely delighted," he says.

Dr Iji is motivated by more than pure science however.

"When I was a young boy, I was raised in the countryside outside Tokyo. Gradually the trees disappeared – everything so rapidly urbanized. It made me deeply sad. I began to wonder if I couldn't do something to mitigate between the environment and the march of civilization. One way to resolve this was though technology." That's actually why Dr. Iji says he became a chemist at NEC, a company normally associated more with electronics than chemistry. He experienced first hand that NEC was committed to the preservation of the environment.

Now the research has paid off. The launch this year of NEC's highly successful "Eco" mobile is made from materials, 90% of which are from biomass content, including kenaf and other special biomass-based additives. Marketing tests have shown the mobile to be especially appealing to environmentally-conscious consumers. It's just as well, given that green-consumer advocacy group Co-op America recently reported that over 25% of American consumers are now actively buying environmentally-friendly products.

But NEC hasn't stopped there.  It will begin to form the housings of NEC's personal computers from bioplastics in 2007.

Furthermore, they have developed a new intelligent shape memory bioplastic by modifying the chemical structure of the material. "We believe wearable electronics are the future," says Iji. He calls these plastics 'intelligent' – which could translate into thinner and smaller cell phone and computers, shaped to suit our bodies.


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