IBM Corp. and Stanford University researchers claim they have developed catalyst technology that could lead to new polymers and methods of recycling plastics.
New types of biodegradable, biocompatible polymers are possible with the organocatalysis technology, according to the researchers. It could boost sustainability efforts in markets as diverse as health care and microelectronics.
In a paper published in the journal Macromolecules, researchers detail development of several families of active, environmentally benign organic catalysts. They can convert renewable resources to products that can compete with existing materials made using conventional catalysts such as metal-based types.
The paper also describes recycling strategies that would allow a closed-loop life cycle while minimizing environmental impacts.
Also, the team has developed a strategy to make cyclic polyesters and new families of biocompatible polymers for medical uses.
We're exploring new methods of applying technology and our expertise in materials science to create a sustainable, environmentally sound future, said Josephine Cheng, IBM fellow and vice president of research at IBM's laboratories in Almaden, Calif.
The development of new families of organic catalysts brings more versatility to green chemistry and opens the door for novel applications, such as making biodegradable plastics, improving the recycling process and drug delivery, Cheng said in a news release.
The researchers point to PET recycling as one area that could gain from the new catalysts. They said disposable plastic bottles are among the most vexing environmental challenges. They state the bottles can be recycled only once before ending up in landfill as secondary products such as carpet.
An industry spokesman took strong exception to the statements about the limited recyclability of PET bottles.
We encourage continuing technology to recycle PET, but please don't characterize them as not recyclable, said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the Sonoma, Calif.-based National Association for PET Container Resources. Such comments are nonsensical, Sabourin said in a telephone interview.
New recycling technology might have limited usefulness if people's habits don't change, explained one analyst.
Irrespective of the success or availability of such technology, its viability will be determined by the presence of a recycling infrastructure and public awareness, said J.N. Swamy, director of single-client services for Chemical Market Resources Inc. of Houston.
A major challenge in the U.S. has been getting the public to participate in recyclables collection, Swamy added.
The new catalysts depolymerize PET faster and with less energy than conventional technologies, said IBM researcher Jim Hedrick. The scientists will collaborate with colleagues at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to develop the recycling process for PET.
Some of the new catalysts are carbenes, said Hedrick. Researchers have explored a range of monomers and will look at more. Much of the early work has focused on ring-opening polymerization.
IBM is based in Armonk, N.Y.
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