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In her hands, teacher Sandra Pascoe Ortiz holds a plastic strip, stretches it a little, turns it around, wraps a small box with it and places it with other samples of similar texture, all created from nopal juice.
Sandra Pascoe, a research professor at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac (Univa) in Guadalajara, is working on the development of a nature-friendly bioplastic created from succulent plants.
This bioplastic takes advantage of the properties of the nopal, a common species present in the desert areas of the Los Altos de Jalisco region and on the borders with Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. Sandra Pascoe points out that it was sought to use a species that is not edible for humans, in order to avoid competition in the use of nopal as food.
"The project arises from an ecological concern to try to replace, perhaps not 100 percent, the plastics derived from petroleum, and it is proposed in a certain way to replace the plastic materials that take many years to degrade," says the chemical engineer and teacher in biotechnological processes.
Sandra Pascoe, the teacher, has already processed the registration of the formulation and the bioplastic elaboration process before the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property. Sandra Pascoe assures that the development of this bioplastic derived from nopal began after observing the mucilage that the plant secretes, is that is, the viscous substance found in some species. The primary idea was to find a substitute for everyday plastic bags; however, the raw material had yet to be determined to initiate the investigation.
At first, the idea of working with three plants was projected: the nopal and the aloe vera, chosen for their rapid production and abundance in Jalisco, and the pitayo, for being a regional species; However, the latter was discarded because the highest concentration of mucilage it contained was found in the peel of its fruit, which is only harvested in certain seasons of the year.
Later, he began with the treatment of nopal, which was also selected for the project due to its Mexican symbolism and because it is a plant that can be easily produced, if it is needed as a resource for experimentation.
"What I did was try some formulations of mixtures, not reaching the best polymerization, but it did improve the characteristics of the nopal slime, and that is what I started to work with," says Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, who has been a teacher at Univa for 16 years.
This work began four years ago and, currently, the research team of the teacher Sandra Pascoe is experimenting with different types of bioplastic formulas to test characteristics such as resistance or elasticity.
“I chose a kind of cactus to work with. We are in the stage of mechanical tests to find out if by changing the composition of the nopal, the properties of the bioplastic change ”, says the researcher, who adds that the species chosen for production was Opuntia megacantha and beforehand, Opuntia ficus- indicates.
A glass of juice in the lab
For the production of bioplastic derived from nopal, the teacher Sandra Pascoe assures that the raw material used in the elaboration of this product can be obtained with a juice extractor, from where the thickest liquid is taken to begin with the development of this material.
Substances such as glycerin, natural proteins are then added to it and, in some cases, dyes of natural origin are used to improve the aesthetics of the product. The teacher Pascoe mentions that the proportions of the materials have been experimented with to obtain a consistency more in line with the desired characteristics.
The Univa researcher points out that for now they are thinking of making this plastic for simpler purposes, for example to be used as packaging for products, since they are still working on the development of prototypes with more resistance and volume.
This bioplastic, says the teacher, can degrade in the open in three months, and if it is in contact with water, the period is reduced to two weeks, in contrast to other plastics that last for years without integrating into the environment.
In addition, Sandra Pascoe, member of the Univa System Research Headquarters, points out that this material is not toxic to animals, should the product reach the seas; even in the development of the research he got to taste the bioplastic.
Sandra Pascoe Ortiz indicates that after finding the most suitable formula for the elaboration of this product and after it undergoes more resistance tests, it will seek to develop and standardize technology for the mass production of bioplastic.
Just when you have tunas?
The teacher Pascoe, who was supported by the scholarship for graduate students granted by the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) during the master's degree, asserts that of the more than 300 species of cacti of the genus Opuntia that exist, she chose one that she obtains in the municipality of Ojuelos de Jalisco, in the northeast of the state.
In order to obtain the raw material, he went to local producers who cultivate the nopal of the Opuntia megacantha species to only extract the prickly pear, so the rest of the plant would be used for the production of bioplastic.
The teacher mentions that Univa has already submitted the application for the patent registration of the formulation and the bioplastic production process before the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI).
"A patent application was filed in December 2014, now the status of the file is in‘ Merits Examination ’and we hope that by mid-2018 there will be an examiner's opinion on the record."
Furthermore, the aim is for the project to be multidisciplinary, since it was already suggested to the students of Univa that they seek a utility for the product and at the same time benefit the community; for example, with the integration of farms dedicated to the production of the raw material of this bioplastic: the nopal.
“From a brainstorming with students of the degrees of marketing and industrial engineering, six applications for bioplastic were obtained; some of them were, for example, the development of beads for costume jewelery, packaging for solids and the production of small bags ”.
In the project of the teacher Sandra Pascoe, called “Formulation, analysis and evaluation of a biodegradable plastic of natural origin formulated from succulent species present in the state of Jalisco”, the engineer César Octavio Vargas and students from Univa have collaborated as research assistants.
By Pablo Miranda Ramírez