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Advances in material science produced cheaper, cleaner and more durable plastics in 2015
Posted on February 9th, 2016 by Christina Valimaki in Chemical R&D
The focus of plastic research has shifted considerably in the past few decades, now centering on sustainability of production rather than economy of scale. The new year holds plenty of promise for plastic, as researchers are closer than ever to developing new modes of commercially viable plastic production that offer a significantly reduced impact on the environment. Recent advances in biodegradable plastics like polylactic acid could lead researchers to a solution to the long-term pollution problems created by pervasive plastic waste worldwide.
Developments in material science may also help turn sustainable plastic into a widely acceptable commercial alternative to petroleum-based plastics. John Standish, technical director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, drew attention to this hurdle at the Annual Blow Molding Conference in Pittsburgh, according to Plastics News.
“You can make the ethylene glycol used to make PET from bioresources,” said Standish. “But in today’s market, making polymers directly from traditional petroleum sources is by far more economical. So as appealing as this strategy is, it’s not economically practiced very much today.”
This status quo may soon change as high-performance plastics with intriguing new abilities are currently in development. A closer look at some of the most notable recent breakthroughs in plastics research sheds light on an evolving pillar of material science.
Researchers address pollution concerns with new biodegradable polymer
In August of 2015, Eugene Chen, an award-winning chemist at Colorado State University, made a massive discovery in the form of a new polymerization process that allows researchers to turn a common chemical reagent into a commercial-grade bioplastic. Chen’s report, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, indicated that this remarkable polymer boasts dynamic capabilities:
- Through a unique catalyzing process, chemical synthesis of poly(γ-butyrolactone) (PγBL) from bioderived five-membered γ-butyrolactone (γ-BL) is possible at 90 percent conversion in ambient pressure conditions.
- Adjustments in catalyst and production conditions allows for synthesis of PγBL in linear and cyclic topologies.
- Heating bulk quantities of PγBL at 220 °C (linear) or 300 °C (cyclic) for an hour will revert the polymer to its monomer form, which can be catalyzed again to form new polymers.
Another impressive quality of PγBL is the material’s striking chemical similarity to a bacteria-produced commercial biomaterial known as poly(4-hydroxybutyrate), according to Phys.org. Also known as P4HB, the material’s highly specialized production process has limited its commercial viability. Ease of mass production of PγBL, thanks to the relative abundance of γ-butyrolactone, could quickly render P4HB obsolete. More importantly, the polymer’s complete recyclability represents a possible paradigm shift for materials science in the plastics industry.
Another major breakthrough toward making biodegradable plastics more cost-effective was made in 2015 by researches at the University in Leuven in Belgium. By applying a new chemical process, postdoctoral researcher Michiel Dusselier and his team were able to eliminate many of the intermediary processes in the production of polylactic acid.
“We speed up and guide the chemical process in the reactor with a zeolite as a catalyst…By selecting a specific type on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores,” said Dusselier in a University statement.
As these and other advanced materials science methods begin to enter widespread production, it’s only a matter of time before the value of innovative biodegradable plastics more than outweigh those of petroleum-based products.
Hints from nature lead scientist to discover new self-healing plastics
It’s not uncommon for researchers to take inspiration from chemical processes that occur in nature. Such was the case when Melik Demirel, a professor of engineering science and mechanics at the Pennsylvania State University, developed a multiphase polymer derived from proteins found in the genetic code of squid ring teeth. What makes this bioplastic so special? A drop of water initiates a self-repairing chemical reaction, making the new material ideal for use in hard to reach places. The material’s biocompatibility makes the new plastic an intriguing candidate for medical implants.
“Maybe someday we could apply this approach to healing of wounds or other applications,” said Meirel, in a Penn State release. “It would be interesting in the long run to see if we could promote wound healing this way so that is where I’m going to focus now.”
Commercial-friendly methods generate strong momentum behind bioplastics
In addition to new research methods, several bioplastic applications were announced in 2015 with the potential to revolutionize their respective industries. For example, biomaterial company Spiber Inc., based in the Yamagata Prefecture of Japan, announced the development of its first commercial product, a highly durable jacket created from a biodegradable plastic designed to replace petroleum-based nylon. The material is based from recombinant fibroin, the main protein found in spider silk, according to The Japan Times. By synthesizing variations of the fibroin gene, bioplastic filaments of different strength and elasticity can be produced.
An equally compelling commercial application for bioplastic materials was discovered by Bio-on Laboratories. The lab’s Supertoys material is a safe and hygienic bioplastic created to replace the waste-generating production of plastics made for children’s toys, according to a company press release. Along with with its announcement, Bio-on released LEGO-like building blocks with the Supertoys materials to demonstrate the potential for their patented polymers family polyhydroxyalkanoates, derived from agricultural waste like sugarcane and molasses, to make waves in the toy manufacturing industry.
With so many revolutionary bioplastics on the horizon, who knows what amazing new discoveries the future of material science holds in store.
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