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NEC builds a better bioplastic from plant stems and cashew nut shells

We've already seen cellphones made from corn and bioplastics used in other products, but NEC has now come up with what it says is an even better solution: a first-of-its-kind bioplastic that's based on non-edible plant resources. That's as opposed to bioplastics based on things like corn, which are better for the environment than traditional plastics but don't necessarily represent the best use of food. What's more, NEC's new bioplastic also boasts a high plant component ratio of more than 70% -- derived from plant stems and cashew nut shells -- and it's said to boast a high durability that makes it especially well suited to electronics. As you might expect, however, it's not quite ready to be used for electronics just yet, but it's not all that far off either -- NEC says it expects to put it into production for use in a "wide range of electronic equipment" within the 2013 fiscal year. Full press release is after the break.

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NEC Develops High Performance Bioplastic with a High Plant Ratio by Using Non-edible Plant Resources

-- Advanced bioplastic from plant stems and cashew nut shells --

Tokyo, August 25, 2010 - NEC Corporation (NEC; TSE: 6701) announced today the development of a first-of-its-kind durable new biomass-based plastic (bioplastic) that is produced from non-edible plant resources. The bioplastic is created by bonding cellulose (*1), a main component of plant stems, with cardanol (*2), a primary component of cashew nut shells, which achieves a level of durability that is suitable for electronic equipment and boasts a high plant composition ratio of more than 70%.

The new bioplastic characteristics are as follows.

1. Composed of non-edible plant resources
As an alternative to petroleum-based components, cellulose is the plastic's major ingredient. The cellulose, which is produced in large amounts by plants, including grass stems, etc., is modified by cardanol, an oil-like material that is extracted from cashew nut shells. Most of these stems and nut shells are abundant resources, which are often discarded byproducts of the agricultural process.

2. High plant component ratio
The use of cellulose and cardanol, both plant resources, as the plastic's primary components produces a plastic that features a high plant component ratio of more than 70%. Current cellulose based plastics include large amounts of petroleum-based additives, which results in a low plant component ratio.

3. High durability well suited for electronics
After enhancing its reactivity, cardanol is chemically bonded with cellulose, which produces a durable thermo-plastic that is strong, heat resistant, water resistant and non-crystalline (short molding time), due to the bonded cardanol's unique molecular structure consisting of flexible and rigid parts.

Comparison to existing bioplastics: polylactic acid resin (PLA) (*3) and cellulose acetate (CA) based resin
* Durability (strength & malleability): Twice the strength of existing PLA. Comparable to conventional CA resin
* Heat resistance (glass transition temperature): More than twice the resistance of PLA, approximately 1.3 times more than CA resin
* Water resistance: Comparable to PLA, approximately 3 times more than CA resin
* Molding time: Less than 50% of PLA. Comparable to conventional cellulose-based and petroleum-based plastics.

In recent years, bioplastics composed from plant resources gathered greater attention as an effective measure to reduce the depletion of petroleum resources and alleviate global warming. However, while current leading bioplastics, such as PLA, primarily use feed grains as a plant resource, the possibility of future food shortages has emphasized the importance of using non-edible plant resources to produce bioplastics.

Therefore, non-edible plant-based bioplastics have been developed using such resources as cellulose and castor oil (*4). These cellulose-based bioplastics have conventionally been utilized in stationery, toys and household goods. However, these modified celluloses require large amounts of petroleum-based additives such as plasticizers, which results in bioplastics with a low plant component ratio and poor durability, including heat resistance and water resistance.

A polyamide resin derived from castor oil, a non-edible plant resource is also being used in electronic parts, however, there is an inadequate supply of this plant resource to expand its use and its characteristics are unsuitable for use in a variety of electronics.

However, NEC's newly developed bioplastic resolves each of these issues. Looking forward, the company will continue with research and development towards mass production of this bioplastic and improving its suitability for a wide range of electronic equipment within the 2013 fiscal year.

This newly developed bioplastic will be formally announced at The Chemical Society of Japan / Kanto Branch meeting at the University of Tsukuba on August 31, 2010.