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UMaine researchers developing wood-based alternative to PFAS

Nabanita Das, a student in the University of Maine's School of Forest Resources, puts drops of oil ontp a paper plate with a pulp-based coating to show how it prevents the oil from soaking in. Das and a group of University of Maine, Orono, researchers are developing alternatives to the unhealthy PFAS coatings that had been used to keep oil from soaking into single-use paper plates.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
/
BDN
Nabanita Das, a student in the University of Maine's School of Forest Resources, puts drops of oil ontp a paper plate with a pulp-based coating to show how it prevents the oil from soaking in. Das and a group of University of Maine, Orono, researchers are developing alternatives to the unhealthy PFAS coatings that had been used to keep oil from soaking into single-use paper plates.

Researchers at the University of Maine are developing a highly refined cellulose coating made from wood that could replace coatings of "forever chemicals" in commercial production.

The process refines the wood product, which can come from a variety of sources, to create an effective barrier to oil and grease in products like food containers.

UMaine’s Dr. Colleen Walker said the product is currently a white paste, similar in consistency to mashed potato, and one of the challenges is how to apply the coating to consumer products on a commercial scale.

"We can do it on a paper machine pretty well at the wet end. But for these applications, like trays, takeout containers, we need to find the best way to apply this very thick material," she said.

But Walker said testing has found the coating to be a very effective grease barrier. And unlike PFAS, it breaks down over time-and comes from a sustainable source.

PFAS chemicals, which are used in a variety of consumer products, utilize a strong carbon-fluorine bond to repel both oil and water. But that same bond is what prevents the chemicals from breaking down in the environment.

By contrast, the cellulose product creates tightly packed hydrogen bonds through layers of small fibers that act like a physical barrier to grease said UMaine chemical engineering professor Douglas Bousfield.

"When we do our oil, grease testing and stuff, it gives results that are much better than any other alternatives out there right now," he said.

The challenge, Bousfield said, will be working to scale up production to meet commercial demand. But he said the product offers a sustainable alternative to PFAS that could be used with many paper and fiber products.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.