published on 9 January 2019 in energy

Christmas trees become paint and food sweeteners

Christmas has just gone by and Epiphany (Twelfth Night) has brought all the festivities to an end as it does every year.  Christmas decorations have been put away until next year, while many real Christmas trees have been taken to landfills. In future, however, Christmas trees may have a more sustainable use. An alternative, in fact, has been suggested by researchers at Sheffield University, in Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom, who propose turning fir and pine needles into paint and food sweeteners.

The trees that we usually decorate during Christmas (pine and fir trees) have hundreds of thousands of needles, which take much longer to decompose than the leaves of other trees do. When they decompose, moreover, these needles release enormous quantities of greenhouse gases. Based on this information, Cynthia Kartey, a PhD student at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering of the University of Sheffield, began working to discover that it is possible to extract high value chemical products, like sugars and phenolic acids, from pine needles.

By breaking down the chemical structure of pine needles using heat and solvents, it is possible to obtain a liquid product (bio-oil) and a solid by-product (bio-carbon). The first contains principally glucose, acetic acid and phenol, chemical substances used in many industries: for example, glucose is used in the production of food sweeteners, acetic acid for production of paints, adhesives and even vinegar. The second can also be used in other industrial chemical processes.

Thanks to this research, two problems could be solved in the future: on the one hand disposal of large quantities of Christmas trees which, following the thermal shocks they undergo when going from indoors to outdoors, do not survive the festivities, and on the other the need to replace chemical substances that are not very sustainable with products obtained from pine needles.

“In the future,” Cynthia Kartey concludes, “the tree that decorated your house over the festive period could be turned into paint to decorate your house once again.”

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
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