News - December 13, 2016

Students win innovation prize for chemistry with bioplastic

Albert Sikkema

A team of WUR students has won the student competition in the top sector of chemistry. Their team, Perfect Package, developed a new generation of bioplastics.

<Sjoerd van Dongen and Veerle de Goederen during their research, photo credits Layla Broers>

Layla Broers, Sjoerd van Dongen and Veerle de Goederen each received a cheque for 1000 euros during Chains, the national chemistry congress held on 7 December. The WUR bachelor students won the student prize from three other teams. During their Honours Programme in the summer, they developed a new bioplastic. 

After their research proposal had been selected from among nine proposals for the NWO Top Sector Chemistry Student Competition (for MSc students), they were allotted a budget of 27,000 euros to do the actual research. Following this, they presented their results to a jury of twelve experts. And then they were awarded the prize at the biggest chemistry conference in the Netherlands.

The third-year students were working on a biologically degradable plastic that would be suitable for packaging food. Since most bioplastics are permeable, they can’t be used as packaging material. Perfect Package studied the use of nanoparticles to make plastic more stable and more waterproof.

To achieve their desired results, they used chitin, a water-repellent material from crustaceans. Research on this material had been done previously, but the WUR students were the first to make a nearly commercial bioplastic from chitin nanoparticles. The jury stated that their bioplastic had characteristics similar to ‘normal’ polythene plastic. The students are going to publish their innovative method in a scientific journal. A manufacturer of bioplastics has already shown interest in their research.

The jury agreed that the Honours students had found a creative way of applying chemistry to a socially relevant challenge. They had a clear research plan and achieved good results.

The three students were very pleased with their strong, multidisciplinary team. Layla Broers is a student of Nutrition and Health, Sjoerd van Dongen studies Molecular Life Sciences and Veerle de Goederen studies Biology. ‘We were able to do research in four different buildings with different equipment,’ said Van Dongen. ‘What makes the campus unique is that everything is close together.’

Their research for the Honours Programme has gotten a bit out of hand. A group project (often a literature review) normally requires about 80 hours, but Layla, Sjoerd and Veerle have all spent more than 400 hours on the project. ‘It’s a exciting and educational experience,’ Layla said.