Bisphenol A (BPA) is currently banned from baby bottles so the search is on for alternatives.
Lignin, the compound that gives wood its
strength, from waste in paper manufacturing could be ready for the market within five years, according to a paper at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.
There is no evidence of harm due to BPA despite 50 years of common use but some critics allege it mimics the hormone estrogen and that it might be unsafe for young children and pregnant women in ways as yet undiscovered. Parents scared by the precautionary principle and the Dr. Oz show are not replacing it with a completely unknown alternative no matter how 'green' it claims to be, but alternatives are worthwhile research.
"Approximately 3.5 million tons of BPA are produced annually worldwide," said Kaleigh Reno,
the University of Delaware
graduate student who presented the work. Reno and he advisor Richard Wool, Ph.D., turned to lignin because papermaking and other wood-pulping processes produce 70 million tons of lignin byproduct each year, 98 percent of which is incinerated to generate small amounts of energy.
Reno has developed a process that instead converts lignin fragments into a compound called bisguaiacol-F (BGF), which has a similar shape to BPA. She and Wool predict it will act like BPA, as well. "We expect to show that BGF has BPA-like properties within a year," said Wool.
Reno is confident that BGF will be a safe stand-in for BPA. "We know the molecular structure of BPA plays a large role in disrupting our natural hormones, specifically estrogen," she said, though that is going to stun the entire medical world, which has been looking without success for just such a 'smoking gun'. "We used this knowledge in designing BGF such that it is incapable of interfering with hormones but retains the desirable thermal and mechanical properties of BPA."
The researchers used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency software to evaluate the molecule, and determined it should be 'less toxic' than BPA, though the presentation did not show how BPA was toxic.
Less incredible is the claim that because BGF is made from an existing waste product, it could be be a viable alternative environmentally. BPA is manufactured from compounds found in oil, a fossil fuel, while BGF's feedstock, lignin, comes from trees, a renewable resource.
The researchers chose BGF based on "Twinkling Fractal Theory," which Wool explains can predict mechanical and thermal properties. "This approach considerably simplifies the design of new biobased materials since we can predetermine properties and screen for toxicity for a broad range of potential compounds from renewable resources such as lignin and plant oils," he says.