Polymers with Biological Properties
New Fraunhofer Project Group Wants to Breathe Life into Polymers
For decades, researchers have worked successfully to impart extra properties to materials. Perhaps the best known fruits of this work are dirt- and water-repellent automotive coatings, and shape-memory metals. At the same time, these are a reflection of the growing demand for materials that combine different properties. Whereas lotus-effect coatings were the outcome of imitating a phenomenon first observed in nature, the approach now is to incorporate biological functionality directly into materials. This is the goal of the Fraunhofer project group “Biofunctionalization/ Biologization of Polymer Materials (BioPol)”, which commenced working in July 2018.
By combining plastics with biological building blocks, such as peptides, enzymes or sugar molecules, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research (IAP) and Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU) in Cottbus-Senftenberg are hoping to develop polymer materials which can deliver new properties for a wide variety of applications. They are especially interested in facilitating the manufacture of such materials on an industrial scale. The Ministry of Science, Research and Culture for the State of Brandenburg is funding the five-year project with 2.5 million euros.
The processing pilot plant for biopolymers on BASF’s Schwarzheide site has been operated by Fraunhofer IAP under the direction of Thomas Büsse since 2013 in direct proximity to the Senftenberg campus and satisfies the physical aspect. The considerable expertise already gathered by the Fraunhofer IAP’s high-performance center for the integration of biological and physicochemical material functions has been augmented with that of Prof. Klaus-Peter Stahmann in enzyme production, Prof. Katrin Scheibner in peroxygenases and Prof. Katrin Salchert in the biofunctionalization of surfaces.
Prof. Johannes Ganster, who heads the Biopolymers research group at Fraunhofer IAP and also holds the joint-appointed professorship for Biopolymers and Plastics Processing at BTU, acts as a link between the two institutions and is also acting head of the project group.
Biomolecules on the Surface and in the Bulk Material
Biologized plastics can be used in a wide range of applications. “For example, sugar molecules can be incorporated into materials to prevent bacteria from adhering to the surface. Simply wiping the material with water would make it germ-free again,” says Prof. Ganster, who will soon be handing leadership of the project group to a new junior professor at BTU.
But the researchers want to go even deeper. They want to penetrate the entire polymer material so as to ensure that the specific effectiveness is not lost due to surface wear. “Aside from antimicrobial proteins, we also want to combine polymer materials with biomolecules that boost adhesion or are water- or oil-repellent. With enzymatically active surfaces or enzymes that enable or improve the biodegradability of materials, it is also possible to obtain products that could be highly interesting for industry,” explains Dr. Ruben R. Rosencrantz, who is collaborating closely with Prof. Ganster on the project.