Leicester Ionic Liquids Group
Green Solutions
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Research

The main research interests of the group are firmly based around green chemistry with particular emphasis on electrochemical processes. It is active in developing novel solvent systems with industrial applications such as metal deposition and dissolution. It collaborates strongly with industry and much of the work to date has been in the development of novel processes using ionic liquids.

Novel Materials — Salt Modified Starch

This work has been funded by the EPSRC.
It and was presented at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2009.
Society has relied on oil for much of its technological advances in its recent history through its use as an energy source for electricity, heating and automobile propulsion and the production of small organic molecules for use in chemical synthesis and the generation of plastics. Due to the limited nature of oil reserves, the development of sustainable alternatives for all of these applications are the subject of intense research by groups all over the globe due to its importance for the continued development of society as a whole.

Global plastic production was 260 million tonnes in 2007 while plastics use has historically grown at a rate of 9% p.a. indicating that plastic consumption will continue its rapid increase. There have been a number of alternatives to oil based plastics developed; polylactic acid (PLA) is produced by the ring opening polymerisation of lactide which is produced via a three step process, polyhydroxy butyrate (PHB) which is produced naturally by various microorganisms such as alcaligenes eutrophus in response to conditions such as stress. These polymers can be used to produce plastics which possess some useful material properties while originating from sustainable resources as well as being biodegradable, unlike most conventional petroleum based plastics.

One alternative to this is thermoplastic starch (TPS) which is formed by the incorporation of small polar organic compounds such as water, glycerol, urea, ethanolamine and formamide. These compounds help to plasticise the starch by breaking the internal hydrogen bonding between the glucose rings in the starch breaking up its crystallinity and making the structure more amorphous. The modifier is usually incorporated into the structure by extrusion, compression molding, casting or melt processing.

Salt modified starch can be made as a transparent material (A), dyed with food colouring (B), and strengthened with fibers (C). Sources of starch can be waste products like fruit peel (D).

In our work we have incorporated simple organic salts to act as plasticisers. These so-called salt modified starch materials have increased flexibility. One such salt is choline chloride (Ch Cl) which is a bulk chemical used in a variety of consumer products. It was found that heating a 70:30 starch/ plasticiser by weight mixtures at 140 oC under 10 tonnes pressure for 10 minutes could produce a transparent material (A) with a UTS of 5MPa and an elongation at break of 20%. We have also been able to blow this material into a foam with improved resilience compared to commercial blown starch which is commonly used as a packaging material.

One advantage of salt modified starch is that they can be dyed using food colouring (B). It can also be used for high strength composites with hemp or flax (C). In this form the composites have strengths of 60 MPa and are comparable in strength with nylon. This is the first all-natural high-strength material and may find application in cladding or flooring. In addition to the use of virgin starch the group is also investigating the use of waste starch from sources such as potato, banana and orange peel (D). The group is also looking towards natural fillers such as eggshell to produce all-natural plastics. The aim is to be bio-inspired and look to the range of natural materials for ways of constructing starch and cellulose composites.

The materials produced in this way are fully compostable.