Stanford, IBM applying green chemistry to plastics

March 9, 2010 7:10:45 PM PST
Plastic bottles and plastic bags are so environmentally distasteful, many cities like San Francisco and San Jose are banning them in one form or another. Now, some researchers in the South Bay are working on redefining what plastic is all about.

IBM and Stanford University researchers have done literally thousands of experiments. The collaboration has one goal -- to create a green generation of plastics.

"We're trying to develop a science behind sustainable plastics," says professor Bob Waymouth from the Stanford chemistry department.

The first challenge is that most plastics are petroleum based and not made from renewable material. The second is that material is not easily broken down.

Right now most plastics can't be recycled back to their original state or more than once and that's the problem researchers at the lab are trying to solve.

There are an estimated 13 billion plastic bottles thrown away each year. When they are recycled, the material generally becomes secondary products like synthetic carpet or playground equipment, and all too often plastics just end up in the landfill.

The IBM/Stanford team has been working together for eight years. They say their breakthrough development is a new family of organic catalysts that work like enzymes.

"They mimic the way nature does things, but they don't stay in the material forever because they're degradable themselves," says Waymouth.

If plastics can be made from renewable materials and can be recycled and reused as easily as aluminum, these researchers are on the cutting edge of green chemistry.

"What it means is developing chemical synthesis that are environmentally friendly, benign, will not affect future generations adversely and are easily recyclable," says IBM researcher Jim Hedrick.

Creating sustainable plastic is not just about reducing bottle waste, researchers say such breakthrough material could be used in the medical and electronics industries. The first commercial uses however are still years away.


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