These biopolymers can be used for solar energy generation, medicine, biomedical engineering and more. * They are affordable and are a viable alternative to petroleum-based polymers.


The new Technion-made biopolymer above an oleander shrub. (photo credit: TECHNION)
The new Technion-made biopolymer above an oleander shrub. (photo credit: TECHNION)

Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have been advancing a groundbreaking technology that allows for converting food byproducts into energy-conductive biopolymers.

These biopolymers are, essentially, based on recycled food industry byproducts that would otherwise have been thrown away as waste. However, it is possible to convert them into biopolymers that can be used for solar energy generation, biomedical engineering and more.

The Technion’s approach is a combination of two main approaches, environmental chemistry and sustainable chemistry. The former deals with creating environmentally friendly materials and the latter uses available degradable materials and an energy-efficient process.

Essentially, what the researchers did was use an environmentally friendly production process for the purpose of creating environmentally friendly materials and products, specifically polymers.

Polymers themselves are long chains of various different building blocks, which are, fittingly, called monomers. These can be formed naturally, such as silk and cotton fibers, and synthetically, such as nylon. But conductive polymers are a specific subgroup that have a vast number of possible applications, ranging from electronics to fuel cells to medicine and more. However, creating them is very costly, and having to use derivatives of gas, oil and fossil fuels means they also cause pollution.

But the Technion researchers have found an alternative with their focus on using food industry byproducts, which they have dubbed protein polymers.“

The inspiration to use proteins to create conductive polymers originated in the unique function of proteins in nature – they are exclusively responsible for transporting various charge carriers in flora and fauna; for example, in cellular respiration or in photosynthesis in plants,” lead author Prof. Nadav Amdursky of the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry said in a statement.

The transparent biopolymer films created by the researchers have a high degree of conductivity. As they are natural and non-toxic, it can be used for biological and biomedical applications. It can be stretched to around 400% of its original length without significantly impacting its electrical properties, and its conductivity is some of the highest found in biological materials.“

The production of the film in our research was a one-pot process, spontaneous, inexpensive, fast, energy efficient, and nonpolluting,” Amdursky explained. In their study, which was published in the academic journal Advanced Materials, “we demonstrate the use of the film as ‘artificial skin’ that noninvasively monitors electrophysiological signals. These signals play a meaningful part in brain and muscle activity, and therefore their external monitoring is a highly important challenge.”

These findings are significant not only for the scientific and environmental implications of this method, but also the economic aspect.The method is affordable, and has a low production cost, something that Abdursky emphasized as being important as it allows the product to be something that can viably compete on the market with the petroleum-based polymers that currently dominate the field. That way, with the technology more accessible, it can become more widespread and help reduce pollution.