This tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo breaks down in 60 days

Scientists have designed a set of “green” tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo that doesn’t sacrifice on convenience or functionality and could serve as a potential alternative to plastic cups and other disposable plastic containers. Unlike traditional plastic or biodegradable polymers — which can take as long as 450 years or require high temperatures to degrade — this non-toxic, eco-friendly material only takes 60 days to break down and is clean enough to hold your morning coffee ordinner takeout. This plastic alternative is presented November 12 in the journal Matter.

“To be honest, the first time I came to the US in 2007, I was shocked by the available one-time use plastic containers in the supermarket,” says corresponding author Hongli (Julie) Zhu of Northeastern University. “It makes our life easier, but meanwhile, it becomes waste that cannot decompose in the environment.” She later saw many more plastic bowls, plates, and utensils thrown into the trash bin at seminars and parties and thought, “Can we use a more sustainable material?”

To find an alternative for plastic-based food containers, Zhu and her colleagues turned to bamboos and one of the largest food-industry waste products: bagasse, also known as sugarcane pulp. Winding together long and thin bamboo fibers with short and thick bagasse fibers to form a tight network, the team molded containers from the two materials that were mechanically stable and biodegradable. The new green tableware is not only strong enough to hold liquids as plastic does and cleaner than biodegradables made from recycled materials that might not be fully de-inked, but also starts decomposing after being in the soil for 30-45 days and completely loses its shape after 60 days.

“Making food containers is challenging. It needs more than being biodegradable,” said Zhu. “On one side, we need a material that is safe for food; on the other side, the container needs to have good wet mechanical strength and be very clean because the container will be used to take hot coffee, hot lunch.”

The researchers added alkyl ketene dimer (AKD), a widely used eco-friendly chemical in the food industry, to increase oil and water resistance of the molded tableware, ensuring the sturdiness of the product when wet. With the addition of this ingredient, the new tableware outperformed commercial biodegradable food containers, such as other bagasse-based tableware and egg cartons, in mechanical strength, grease resistance, and non-toxicity.

The tableware the researchers developed also comes with another advantage: a significantly smaller carbon footprint. The new product’s manufacturing process emits 97% less CO2 than commercially available plastic containers and 65% less CO2 than paper products and biodegradable plastic. The next step for the team is to make the manufacturing process more energy efficient and bring the cost down even more, to compete with plastic. Although the cost of cups made out of the new material ($2,333/ton) is two times lower than that of biodegradable plastic ($4,750/ton), traditional plastic cups are still slightly cheaper ($2,177/ton).

“It is difficult to forbid people to use one-time use containers because it’s cheap and convenient,” says Zhu. “But I believe one of the good solutions is to use more sustainable materials, to use biodegradable materials to make these one-time use containers.”

Irrigation boost for cane growers in Burdekin and Bundaberg

Irrigation innovation hubs are being established in key sugar cane growing regions in a bid to help farmers better manage their crops and increase profitability.

Cane growers in the Burdekin district are teaming up with researchers from the University of Southern Queensland with the aim to produce bigger yields through irrigation management.

USQ project lead Michael Scobie is working with a range of experts to develop the skills and capacity of local extension and service providers which will ultimately help farmers produce more cane.

“This project is really looking at helping people involved in the sugar cane industry get better at managing, understanding and assessing their irrigation assistance performance,” Mr Scobie said.

“The idea is to build up the capacity for people who are existing and working in this industry.

“From consultants to extension officers, individuals work one-on-one with our researchers to develop their skills.

“Whether it’s assessing pumps and irrigation systems, developing new technologies or implementing better strategies to reduce water loss, it’ll mean delivering bigger profits for sugar cane growers.”

Sugar cane is one of Australia’s biggest and thirstiest crops, with an estimated 160,000 hectares under irrigation, lapping up millions of litres of water a year.

The project is part of a broader scheme – the Australian Government’s Smarter Irrigation for Profit (Phase 2) – which brings together experts to improve irrigation performance across cotton, grains, sugar cane, dairy and rice industries.
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USQ’s Dr Malcolm Gillies is working on a project to modernise the labour intensive process of furrow irrigation.

It builds on a Sugar Research Australia funded project in the Burdekin four years ago, which saw growers successfully move to automation.

Since then, there has been additional investment in furrow automation systems and Dr Gillies said researchers were looking to see if the learnings could be applied further south.

“USQ is working with growers across the Bundaberg and Burdekin regions to… see if the automation of systems is feasible and secondly to see which technologies are applicable and to see whether the economics stack up,” Dr Gillies said.

“As part of the… program we’re working across multiple industries so some of the learnings we have made in the cotton industry we are transferring those to the sugar industry.

“There is a large range of new technologies and new equipment becoming available and our role as researchers is to help growers use that technology to its best advantage.”

Mr Scobie said the sugar industry faced difficult issues including challenging weather conditions and low world sugar prices, which could reduce productivity and profitablity.

“Improving irrigation and water management on the farm, is one key approach to making sure that the industry remains vibrant and viable.”

Students find sweet positives in carbon-negative hydrogen

Final-year chemical engineering students at The University of Queensland are investigating how sugarcane can be used as a clean energy source to create hydrogen.

Professor Damien Batstone said bagasse and other agricultural residues were an abundant resource that could generate “green” or carbon-negative hydrogen at scale.

“One hundred and fifty students in 36 teams are analysing both thermal gasification, and the more cutting-edge ‘supercritical hydrothermal gasification’ method,” Professor Batstone said.

“The new approach looks promising, with the cost as low as one third that of the current options.”

The process uses waste biomass – crushed sugarcane stalks and leaf – to produce hydrogen for under $3 per kilogram.

Professor Batstone (right) said any carbon dioxide produced was captured, making the process carbon negative.

“The technology can be used with any waste biomass, including green waste and municipal waste streams, and the students’ economic models and design processes show it can be put into practise immediately,” he said.

“Adopting this new hydrogen production approach could have a tremendous impact on the sugarcane industry as farmers seek alternative uses for their crops and mill infrastructure.

“This offers an alternative pathway with potential for higher profits for canegrowers who may have considered exiting the industry, as well as job opportunities for regional areas and clear environmental benefits.

“The process allows sugarcane to be used in ethanol and plastic production, while fully utilising the biomass residues.”

Professor Batstone said agricultural residues were heated to between 400 and 1000 degrees Celsius to create “syngas”, then a series of conversion and separation processes generated pure hydrogen.

“It can be done at atmospheric pressure or at very high pressure in the presence of water,” he said.

Two of the chemical engineering students who are working on the hydrogen project

“Gasification has been widely applied to coal processing but has not been applied to hydrogen production from biomass at large scale.”

Professor Batstone said the project required students to engage intensively with renewable energy and energy transformation, to give them an understanding of the industry’s key challenges at the outset of their careers.

“The federal government’s 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy identified hydrogen as a critically important future source of energy,” he said.

“It flagged creating hydrogen using fossil fuels at $3 per kilogram with significant carbon emissions, and non-fossil-based renewable electricity at significantly higher prices between $6 and $11 per kilogram.

“Industry professionals and UQ researchers are guiding the students in this emerging and vital field, and their work could have a real benefit for industry and the environment.”

Chemical and environmental engineering student Mr Kailin Graham said the project offered insight into real-life engineering work.

“Previous courses taught chemical engineering principles; this project required us to apply these as we would as engineers in the workforce,” he said.

“We engaged with the sugar industry and technology specialists, and it’s exciting to know that our work will have direct relevance to Australian industry.”

Professor Batstone said a position paper compiled from the teams’ findings would be made available to farmers and sugar companies for potential application in their businesses.

Sugarcane to hydrogen investigated

Final-year chemical engineering students at The University of Queensland are investigating how sugarcane can be used as a clean energy source to create hydrogen.

Professor Damien Batstone said bagasse and other agricultural residues were an abundant resource that could generate “green” or carbon-negative hydrogen at scale.

“One hundred and fifty students in 36 teams are analysing both thermal gasification, and the more cutting-edge ‘supercritical hydrothermal gasification’ method,” Professor Batstone said.

“The new approach looks promising, with the cost as low as one third that of the current options.”

The process uses waste biomass – crushed sugarcane stalks and leaf – to produce hydrogen for under $3 per kilogram.

Professor Batstone (right) said any carbon dioxide produced was captured, making the process carbon negative.

“The technology can be used with any waste biomass, including green waste and municipal waste streams, and the students’ economic models and design processes show it can be put into practise immediately,” he said.

“Adopting this new hydrogen production approach could have a tremendous impact on the sugarcane industry as farmers seek alternative uses for their crops and mill infrastructure.

“This offers an alternative pathway with potential for higher profits for canegrowers who may have considered exiting the industry, as well as job opportunities for regional areas and clear environmental benefits.

“The process allows sugarcane to be used in ethanol and plastic production, while fully utilising the biomass residues.”

Professor Batstone said agricultural residues were heated to between 400 and 1000 degrees Celsius to create “syngas”, then a series of conversion and separation processes generated pure hydrogen.

“It can be done at atmospheric pressure or at very high pressure in the presence of water,” he said.

“Gasification has been widely applied to coal processing but has not been applied to hydrogen production from biomass at large scale.”

Professor Batstone said the project required students to engage intensively with renewable energy and energy transformation, to give them an understanding of the industry’s key challenges at the outset of their careers.

“The federal government’s 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy identified hydrogen as a critically important future source of energy,” he said.

“It flagged creating hydrogen using fossil fuels at $3 per kilogram with significant carbon emissions, and non-fossil-based renewable electricity at significantly higher prices between $6 and $11 per kilogram.

“Industry professionals and UQ researchers are guiding the students in this emerging and vital field, and their work could have a real benefit for industry and the environment.”

Chemical and environmental engineering student Mr Kailin Graham said the project offered insight into real-life engineering work.

“Previous courses taught chemical engineering principles; this project required us to apply these as we would as engineers in the workforce,” he said.

“We engaged with the sugar industry and technology specialists, and it’s exciting to know that our work will have direct relevance to Australian industry.”

Professor Batstone said a position paper compiled from the teams’ findings would be made available to farmers and sugar companies for potential application in their businesses.

Joint media release: Sweet victory for sugarcane growers

A unique pilot project involving more than 100 canegrowers in North Queensland has delivered a solution to reduce the amount of nitrates that end up in the Great Barrier Reef by at least 15 per cent.

The successful trial funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) saw scientists and canegrowers working together across the Russell and Mulgrave river catchments south of Cairns to install hi-tech telemetry and water quality sensors close to their properties.

For the first time, farmers were able to access year-round and real time measurements of nitrate amounts in their creeks and rivers using a specially developed mobile phone app.

This showed that if landholders can hold back the first flush of Wet Season rain using the existing farm drainage network and let it settle for a few days, it can significantly reduce runoff into the reef.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said giving growers access to real time data had helped to build trust and provide confidence when making on-farm decisions that support the environment.

“This is an example of farmers and scientists working closely together to improve ecosystem health, ensuring farmers are fully informed and can have faith in the data they are receiving,” Minister Ley said.

“Protecting our waterways means cleaner rivers, larger fish stocks, resilient marine life, healthier coral and stronger coastal tourism.

“To do this we need to work closely with growers and maintain their trust. The project has partnered with local farmers to design the program and carry out the research.

“Being able to accurately track and reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing onto the reef, and work closely with communities, is key to meeting our water quality targets under the Reef 2050 Plan.”

Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef and Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch said the pilot showed how farmers were part of the solution to help the reef thrive.

“Projects like these are building relationships and goodwill between farmers and scientists, allowing landholders to be closely involved in planning discussions and scientific trials.

“Growers have been able to have a say about methods that are acceptable to improve water quality without having financial and practical repercussions on their farms and families.

“This study represents an inspiring commitment by canegrowers to do what they can to help the reef, and how positive these efforts continue to be for the environment, industry and local communities.”

North Queensland-based Senator for Queensland, Susan McDonald, who recently took part in a Senate Inquiry into farming effects on Great Barrier Reef waters, said the Morrison Government was leading the way in showing collaboration as the best way to achieve positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

“One of the glaring revelations in the Inquiry was the lack of on-farm engagement undertaken by the Queensland Labor Government when they drafted their anti-farming Reef regulations,” she said.

“This federal program is giving farmers the tools and information they need to make sound decisions on how they manage their land, but more importantly it shows them the results of their efforts.

“Farmers are the first to say that caring for the environment is a top priority, but they should be encouraged and helped by governments, not dictated to with harsh laws and endless paperwork.”

The project was funded by the Australian Government’s NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub through the Cairns-based Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC) and delivered by scientists from CSIRO and James Cook University.

Sugarcane waste-based durable packaging is plastic-free and compostable

The amount of plastic waste flowing into the ocean could triple by 2040 as part of the estimated 1.3 billion tons predicted to choke our already strained ecosystem, killing marine life and polluting the land. A recent UK investigation found that microscopic, potentially dangerous plastic particles have become “part of the air we breathe”. But companies and governments can reduce plastic production in time, a new study indicates.

W-Cycle, an Israeli foodTech startup has developed SupraPulp, plastic-free packaging made of sugarcane waste that is compostable, safe, and yet durable enough to be used for greasy, wet, or hot food. Packaged food with SupraPulp can be frozen and heated with either an oven, convection oven, steam cooker or microwave.

SupraPulp is patented, field-tested, and an ideal replacement for plastic, aluminium, or foam containers. It is made from 100 per cent renewable sugarcane fibers, called bagasse, the dry, pulpy fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane or sorghum stalks are crushed to extract their juice.

SupraPulp is compostable, non-coated, toxin and metal free. The containers have unique characteristics compared to standard bagasse containers that make them the ideal alternative to plastic trays for food products, especially fresh, frozen, or prepared consumer packaged meals. While standard pulp products cannot sustain liquids and oils, SupraPulp containers are oil – and water-resistant and avoid any absorption or leakage. CPET plastic trays are typically used in for ready-meal packaging.

SupraPulp, just like CPET, is ideal for ready meals since it is suitable for freezer-to-oven/microwave convenience. Fresh meat, poultry & sea food are also commonly packed in plastic (PE, PET, Styrofoam) due to their juice runoff. SupraPulp is a great replacement as it will not absorb them, leak or soften. Following years of R&D efforts, W-Cycle’s new SupraPulp material is able to be frozen to -40°C and reheated to 270°C, inviting a comprehensive range of food applications. After use, the package can be disposed of as organic waste.

“Dispose SupraPulp packages the same way as you would your salad,” says Lior Itai, CEO and co-founder of W-Cycle. “This food-grade, compostable packaging is a one-to-one replacement for its plastic counterpart. There are other compostable solutions on the market, but SupraPulp has game-changing functionality consumers need when they want to heat, freeze, or microwave convenience food products. Plus, SupraPulp trays have a luxury look and feel compared to plastic, aluminum, or bioplastic containers.”