Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Russian biopolymers will support the economy and protect the environment

As the world changes, we are seeing unprecedented disruptions in supply chains, foreign brands are pulling out of Russia and oil and gas prices are soaring. According to many rating agencies, such as Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings, this trend will continue for at least the next two years. It means that both production sector and the consumption market, that is, everything related to the conversion of polymers into a finished product, will be facing hardships. As of now, the prices have grown by 76% for some biopolymer products.

A lab assistant shows microgel in action in the BioMicroGels company’s laboratory. Photo by Pavel Lisitsyn, RIA Novosti

Until 2022, Russia imported most of its polymers that made up a big share of the country’s imports. Now, however, the Russian economy is forced to consider import substitution strategies as an entire range of countries and companies decided to abandon cooperation with Russia due to their inability to fulfill supply contracts.

In such circumstances, biopolymers – natural substances or materials consisting of macromolecules and produced by the cells of living organisms and plants – are earning increasing interest. Biopolymers are widely used across the globe for manufacturing household detergents, cosmetics, packaging and disposable tableware, water purification and oil production, as well as in the automotive industry, medicine, agriculture and many other sectors. Among major biopolymer producers, Asia is ranked first with 47% of global biopolymer production, followed by Europe (26%), North America (17%), and South America (9%).

In Russia, development of biopolymer technologies is still at its initial stage – yet, given the present reality, the sector’s advancement is of particular interest. The country has a high demand in this regard, with a sufficient raw material base and low costs of energy and labor resources as compared to other countries. The relevance of demands for domestic technologies for biopolymer production has been proven by support measures announced by the government. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a directive which stipulates that manufacturers of biopolymers (polylactide) and biodegradable plastic will receive assistance under the state program for agricultural development.

Currently, biodegradable materials are produced through a deep processing of agricultural raw materials, such as wheat, sugar beets, and corn. Involved companies will now have access to preferential investment loans, among others; the government plans to grant them at an annual interest rate of up to 5% for a period between 2 and 15 years.

Biopolymers produced from secondary agricultural resources can significantly reduce production industries’ dependence on the current market volatility, replete the shortage of the previously imported polymers, and make a major contribution to advancement of Russia’ modern and future-oriented economy. In addition, domestic production of biopolymers will reduce the Russian industry’s dependence on expensive foreign equivalents and will serve to protect the environment.

Russia already has available production facilities to manufacture a wide range of biopolymers with the use of domestic technology and raw materials, such as biomicrogels – cleaning products made from sugar beets, pomace and sunflower heads, which are used in the production sector for purifying water and cleaning hard surfaces from all types of oils, fats, petroleum products and other contaminants, and also as ingredients of household detergents and cosmetics. It has been proven that biomicrogels can purify water tenfold more effectively than traditional cleaning methods, reduce water and energy consumption, and decrease the total amount of waste.

The efforts will also include building plants for deep processing of other types of agricultural raw materials, such as a plant to produce biodegradable plastic from wheat in the Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Russian scientists have collaborated with their Indian counterparts to develop a water-soluble food wrap made from sodium alginate, a natural seaweed polymer. The product dissolves by nearly 90% within 24 hours; its natural components are safe and harmless if accidentally eaten. Such wraps can be used for packaging fruits, vegetables, poultry, meat, and seafood; they are totally safe when in contact with food and non-toxic when heated.

Researchers emphasized that production of the new type of wrap does not require any special equipment; it can be produced commercially by manufacturers of regular wraps.

“The only requirement is that a polymer production plant must comply with food production standards. With a nearby ocean, which is an inexhaustible source of algae, the process of creating innovative materials is even easier,” noted Grigory Zyryanov, Professor at the Department of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry of the Ural Federal University.

In case Russian companies boost their biopolymer production, we can be cautiously optimistic about certain industrial and consumer economic segments’ independence from currency exchange rates, disrupted international logistics and production chains, and an unprecedented rise in raw material costs – and one cannot argue with that.

By Andrey Yelagin, General Director, BioMicroGels research and production association

Previous ArticleNext Article