The innovative straw, which won the Japan Wood Design Award given to exceptional products or activities making use of timber, was on display at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center in the capital's Koto Ward on Dec. 6-8.
While challenges remain to commercializing the utensil, Nonaka, a forest resources professor in the university's phytomaterials functionality control lab, and Matsuoka, a master's degree student, are looking to develop more products using their eco-friendly material.
The scientists started thinking about making a straw from wood after being asked by a packing material manufacturer to replace plastic handles of paper bags with material used for paper.
In spring 2016, Nonaka began developing technology to shape a pulpy substance much like clay made from plant fibers. As plastic straws have been gaining attention in relation to the problem of microplastics pollution, the researchers decided to create a wood straw as a first step.
First, powdered wood is mixed with a plant-derived substance to create the mushy material, which is then shaped with a metal mold and dried. The pair refined the technique by repeatedly changing the ratio of water to thickener.
The resulting straw, which has a 5-mm inside diameter, is free of oil-based resin or adhesive materials.
While making straws from wood by simply cutting and shaving timber would lead to a large amount of wood filings, the newly developed technology can be used to create wooden straws without producing such waste.
“Our straws can be made even from sawdust, and the
substance can be shaped freely,” Nonaka said.
Nonaka and Matsuoka plan to use their wood-derived material to replace not only plastic straws, but also plastic trays and shampoo bottles. However, there are still hurdles to overcome before commercial operations can start.
When soaked in water for an extended period, the thickener starts dissolving and the straw swells up. It can also become deformed during the drying process. For these reasons, it is difficult to mass produce the straw at this point.
“The next challenge is how to improve the straw’s water resistance and enable it to maintain its shape,” said Nonaka.
Meanwhile, Matsuoka tested plant-based materials other than wood powder to make an eco-friendly straw in the trial stages.
The master's student, who works part-time at a convenience store, thought that the large amount of waste produced from making coffee daily could be used for other purposes. He used the material to make a straw and found it to be shiny.
"The technique may someday make it possible for chain coffee shops to serve coffee with cup lids and straws made from coffee-derived material,” said Matsuoka.
As many pollutants in the oceans are derived from fishing nets that use chemical fibers, Matsuoka said he also wants to develop nets based on the technology to replace conventional oil-derived ones.
“I expect the time will come when plant-derived materials will be widely used in societies,” he added.
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