Open source bioplastic 2012 update

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I wanted to provide a year end update on the status of the OSE open source bioplastic production project to all interested parties.

Overview: Over past year the open source bioplastic production project has been focused on collecting background information, proposing preliminary approaches, and developing collaborations. Polylactic acid, polyethylene, cellulose acetate, and moldable mycelium are four different and complementary bioplastics under research and development. A biorefinery approach to create multiple bioplastics from a single feedstock has been proposed and appears feasible and in line with the OSE guidelines. Collaborations with Dr Bora of Sabanci University and Dr Pearce of Michigan Technological University are strengthening the project and may allow material progress in the coming year. A collaboration to produce polylactic acid with Michigan Tech's Open Sustainability Technology Research Group led by Dr Pearce will hopefully be the first project to be implemented.

Specific Objectives for 2013: The primary objective for 2013 is to demonstrate polylactic acid production over the summer in the laboratory of Dr Pearce. Polylactic acid is a plastic of moderate complexity, compatible with 3D printing and other fabrication techniques, and could demonstrate a significant OS advancement. A production process that produces lactic acid by microbial fermentation from agricultural waste, refinement to pure lactic acid with cell and feedstock recycle by membrane separation, and polymerization by catalytic dehydration is believed to be the most feasible and efficient route for sustainable localized PLA production. The proposed approach is believed to be able to eliminate the major energy consuming step of feedstock sterilization while avoiding contamination, by using a bacteria (Bacillus coagulans) that grows at a temperature higher than most other bacteria. Purification of lactic acid from the fermentation broth through size and charge selective membranes which will allow continuous fermentation and purification of pure lactic acid without salt waste. Polymerization via a condensation reaction which will be conducted under a vacuum with an efficient catalyst of tin chloride and p-toluenesulfonic acid. Developing the necessary skills and hardware will take interdisciplinary knowledge and collaborations but there appears to be the necessary willing participants. The OSE wiki and appropedia wiki will be used to coordinate the project demonstrating a new approach to distributed applied science and open source development of highly technical production methods. A PLA project worklog has been started to to track and facilitate project progress.

Broader Impacts: Creation of OS polylactic acid will demonstrate the productive power of the open source approach to material progress and incorporate "green chemistry" into the open source toolkit. Through polylactic acid it is hoped that open source high-tech modular research/small scale industrial hardware can be built and its use demonstrated in a research and enterprise setting. With open source knowledge and guidance of fermentor, purification, and chemical reactor technology a new frontier of chemical engineering will be accessible to experimenters and entrepreneurs. Furthermore, project participants are interested in developing open source enterprise plans to sell and profitably develop open source hardware, as well as an OS biorefinery approaches to production of biofuels and biomaterials.

Future Directions: Development of open source polylactic acid production will be followed by refinement of other polymers. Other polymers will require a more robust chemical reactor but a modular approach to hardware design should facilitate flexible hardware that can be configured for any variety of chemical reactions. With multiple polymers available in the open source sphere copolymers (polylactic acid cellulose acetate, polethylene vinyl acetate, cellulose acetate polyvinyl difluoride, etc) can be created for a wide variety applications. This could represent a significant economic impact that would allow transformation of low value biomass to high value and high utility materials and products in a localized market.

Thank you for your support over the last year, and I look forward to continued progress next year.