A natural plastic
German researchers Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT) invented a plastic material made of "liquid wood". Turned into products by Fraunhofer spin-off company Tecnaro, the material has the potential to save fossil fuel and natural resources.
At a glance
Inventor: Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele, Germany
Invention: Arboform renewable plastic
Sector: Environmental technology
Company: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft e.V., Tecnaro GmbH
The story of "liquid wood" starts in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - also known as the "Earth Summit" - together with representatives from 172 countries.
Inspired by the event, Pfitzer and Nägele began looking for materials that could help make the world "greener." At the Fraunhofer ICT, they happened upon lignin, the rigid component in wood that gets discarded as a by-product in the pulp and paper-making process.
Sources of lignin are abundant. The paper industry alone produces some 60 million tonnes each year. Lignin is usually burned or processed into animal feed and cement.
But the ICT research team felt that this natural resource could also be put to other uses. They soon discovered that, when combined with resins, flax and other natural fibres, lignin forms a mass that can be processed like any other thermoplastic material.
The resulting bio-plastic, named Arboform, can be moulded via injection machines into a wide variety of shapes. It is very durable and can be formed with a high degree of precision - much more precisely than regular plastics.
What really sets "liquid wood" apart: Arboform eventually degrades, like wood, into the ecologically harmless components of water, humus and CO2. A definite advantage over the polluting fume emissions of conventional plastic burning.
In 1998, Fraunhofer encouraged Pfitzer and Nägele to create a spin-off company to commercialise their team's invention. Tecnaro, based in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, has now grown to 14 employees, and quintupled its sales between 2005 and 2009.
Demand for Arboform has been soaring. Because it looks like wood but can be cast into round shapes, car interior designers have developed an interest. Tecnaro is working with Porsche, Daimler, and Fischer Automotive on relevant applications.
Other uses include children's toys, furniture, castings for watches, designer loudspeakers - Arboform has wood-like acoustic qualities - degradable golf "tees" and even coffins. While regular plastics cost between EUR 1 and EUR 5 per kilo, the price for Arboform starts at EUR 2.5.
In 2009, Tecnaro produced 275 tonnes of Arboform and a host of other biodegradable and renewable polymers. Helmut Nägele and Jürgen Pfitzer are heading Tecnaro as managing partners.