Scientists Invent Eco-Friendly, Biodegradable Microbeads From Cellulose

This is a huge win for the environment.

Credit: University of Bath

If you’ve ever used a conventional face wash or toothpaste, chances are you’ve come into contact with microbeads. While the tiny plastic beads do a swell job exfoliating, they are a detriment to the environment. Every day, billions of the beads go down the drain and wash into lakes, rivers, and oceans. In bodies of water, they absorb toxins and are ingested by marine life. In fact, it is not unheard of for the beads to make their way up the food chain and end up on people’s plates.

Because the microbeads are such a burden to the environment, some countries have banned their use in personal care products. Others, however, are lagging behind. Fortunately, a viable alternative to traditional microbeads that is eco-friendly and biodegradable has been developed.

Phys reports that engineers from the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies invented an alternative to traditional microbeads. Made of cellulose — the same material that forms the tough fibers of plants and wood, the newly-developed beads can be used as a replacement for the currently environmentally-damaging version.

To make the eco-friendly beads, scientists engineered a process that dissolves plant cellulose then reforms it into tiny beads by forming droplets that “set.” In addition to being robust enough to remain stable in a body wash, the new microbeads can be broken down by organisms at the sewage treatment works — where conventional plastic beads tend to pass through. Even if the cellulose-based microbeads make their way to the environment, they will break down in a short period of time.

Said Dr. Janet Scott, Reader in the Department of Chemistry and part of the CSCT:

“Microbeads used in the cosmetics industry are often made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which are cheap and easy to make. However these polymers are derived from oil and they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.”

“We’ve developed a way of making microbeads from cellulose, which is not only from a renewable source, but also biodegrades into harmless sugars. We hope in the future these could be used as a direct replacement for plastic microbeads,” she added.

Credit: University of Bath

The findings were published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Davide Mattia, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and part of the CSCT, commented:

“Our goal was to develop a continuous process that could be scaled for manufacturing. We achieved this by working together from the start, integrating process design and chemistry optimisation, showing the strength of the multi-disciplinary approach we have in the CSCT.”

Now that the team, led by Dr. Scott, Professor David Mattia, and Professor Karen Elder, has developed a viable alternative to conventional microbeads, the group has been awarded over £1 million in funding by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council to develop porous beads, capsules,  and microsponges. What are your thoughts? Please comment below and share this news!

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