A new type of glass made from biological materials is biodegradable and can be recycled using energy-efficient processes
Spotted: Glass is made by heating limestone, sand, and soda ash to 1,500 degrees Celsius. And the heat usually comes from natural gas, making glass manufacturing a major source of carbon emissions. At the same time, commercial glass does not break down easily in the environment. Yet glass is also vital to many applications – from medicine and science to windows. Now, researchers in China have developed an eco-friendly glass that is biodegradable and biorecyclable
The research group, led by Professor Yan Xuehai from the Institute of Process Engineering (IPE) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, fabricated a type of glass using biologically derived amino acids and peptides. These naturally occurring molecules normally break down into CO2 and compounds called amines at high temperatures, making them unsuitable for glass. But in the study, the researchers chemically modified them so that, when heated, they would melt before the onset of decomposition. This meant that the research team was able to perform the ‘heating-quenching’ procedure used in traditional glassmaking. In this procedure, the modified molecules were melted into a supercooled liquid which was then quickly ‘quenched’ – cooled at high pressure – to form the glass.
The resulting material had the kinetic and thermodynamic properties, as well as the performance, of traditional glass. These included excellent optical characteristics, good mechanical properties, and flexible processability. On top of this, the material was biodegradable and recyclable using energy-efficient processes. The researchers also claim that it would be possible to 3D print the new glass, and use it in mould casting processes.
According to Professor Yan, “The concept of biomolecular glass, beyond the commercially-used glasses or plastics, may underlie a green-life technology for a sustainable future.” He pointed out, though, that the biomolecular glass is currently in the laboratory stage, and it will be a long time before it is ready for large-scale commercialisation.
There is a new recognition of the need to make all types of manufacturing processes more energy efficient. In addition to the glass industry, Springwise has recently spotted innovations to reduce emissions in the steel industry, the coatings industry, and even in marine construction.
Written By: Lisa Magloff