Dutch scientists from Utrecht University and the Dow Chemical Company have found a way of turning plant matter into the building blocks of common plastics using a catalyst made from iron nanoparticles, that offers an alternative to oil-based production.

Existing bioplastics, which are made from crops such as corn and sugar, have only limited use because they are not exact substitutes for oil-based products. However, the Dutch team has produced ethylene and propylene which are the same as those made in petrochemical works, allowing them to be used in a wide range of industries.

The downside is that, like oil-based products, the bioplastics are not biodegradable, although they are made from renewable resources.

The researchers envisage making the bioplastics from  non-food sources of biomass, such as fast-growing trees or grasses, rather than traditional crops, in order to reduce competition for resources between food and fuel.