Smart nanotechnology hub rises in Iloilo

Officials of DOST-PCIEERD and the University of San Agustin lead the launching of the Advanced New Materials, Engineering, and Emerging Technologies (CANMEET). (Rjay Zuriaga Castor photos)

By Rjay Zuriaga Castor

Iloilo is embracing sustainable smart nanomaterials to revolutionize the packaging industry and potentially enhance waste management and the recycling of plastics in the region, or the country at best — thanks to the recently launched hub for sustainable smart nanomaterials at the University of San Agustin (USA).

The Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD) inaugurated the country’s first hub for sustainable smart nanomaterials on Friday.

The laboratory, which was constructed with roughly P234.4 million funding from DOST-PCIEERD, will be a component of USA’s recently founded research facility, the Advanced New Materials, Engineering, and Emerging Technologies (CANMEET).

With its cutting-edge tools, composite polymeric functional films, and nanoparticles that are appropriate for smart packaging technologies, the hub seeks to create active and intelligent packaging systems for commercial use.

The hub is the first in the country to use smart nanomaterials in the production of bioplastics.

Dr. Noel Peter Tan, director of CANMEET and an awardee of DOST’s Balik Scientist Program, said the hub will primarily produce bioplastics, specifically sachets for the commercial sector, by upcycling biomass residues from local biodegradable materials through the intervention of nanotechnology.

“Our hub does try to develop bioplastic packaging in order for them to be marketable, useful … There is no industry here that does bioplastics. With this lab, we will be able to use nanomaterial to intervene and make this bioplastic to be useful to the public,” said Tan, emphasizing that the mission of the hub is to have a tangible product.

“My mission for this hub is to really have a tangible product. What we do in the lab will get out of the lab and will be useful to the community,” he added.

Tan emphasized that they will focus on sachets—small pouches made of single-use plastics— since its demand and supply could actually be maintained, but should be replaced with more biodegradable materials.

“There are a lot of packaging industries, but they only use conventional plastics. That’s why no wonder we really are marine litters for now,” he added, citing World Bank Group’s study in 2021 which declared the country as the third-largest contributor to ocean plastic waste, releasing an estimated 0.75 million metric tons annually.

Tan, however, admitted that bioplastic is not at par with the use of conventional plastic and the challenge comes in encouraging big packaging industries to shift to it.

“One of the obstacles of [shifting from] conventional plastic [to] biodegradable plastic is [the latter] is not used for long terms because the mechanical, barrier, and stability properties are not good enough,” he noted.

“We have to partner with packaging industries and converters, we have to shift from a lab to a scalable technology. Aside from what lab work we do, translation to industrial scale is very big work and that’s what we are trying to work with the packaging industries right now,” he added.

Tan reiterated that the biodegradable sample sachets will use bio-based components, including cellulose and chitosan. Nanomaterials, meanwhile, will be used to make up for the mechanical, barrier, and intelligent characteristics of the packaging, which “makes bioplastics marketable and competitive to conventional plastics.”

Likewise, DOST-PCIEERD executive director Dr. Enrico Paringit said that since the laboratory will use residues, the process is “a double whammy because you get rid of the waste, but you produce something that has additional value.”

Paringit furthered that the hub is strategically located in Western Visayas because of its abundant production of various delicacies, which traditionally use packaging materials sourced from petrochemicals.

He added that the proposed significant problem to be addressed and the availability of local materials that can be used in line with the goals is another factor DOST-PCIEERD has considered.

“One of the challenges of creating bioplastics. Even though some materials could exhibit very good characteristics of being biodegradable, it will not be sustainable in the long run because of the short supply,” he explained.