IBM and Stanford University Researchers are developing catalysts that promise to make cheaper, sustainable, biodegradable plastics with improved properties compared with conventional routes for such plastics.
“What's exciting about this discovery is that we now have a cheaper way to convert plants into common consumer plastics that decompose over time, providing an alternative to recycling plastics,” explained Gavin Jones, a researcher at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif.
Jones said in a phone interview that he and colleagues have been working with polylactic acid, which is the main ingredient in many commercial polymers marketed as sustainable and biodegradable. The research could expand the range of biomaterials used as feedstock to include beets, palm trees and other biomass. Consumer products such as cutlery and medical devices are suitable applications.
“Making biodegradable plastics mainstream means less impact on our solid waste systems,” Jones added.
Traditional methods to make conventional biopolymers use expensive catalysts based on heavy metals such as tin and aluminum. The new catalysts are based on common organic materials such as alkoxides and thioureas, which are easier to remove after polymerization. The absence of heavy metal residues makes biodegradation a more benign process environmentally.
Jones said key plastic properties such as heat resistance, flexural strength and impact resistance could be customized by adjusting the new catalysts. The catalysts also fine-tune polymerization so that the desired long chain polymer molecules are less likely to be broken up into unwanted byproducts, a common problem with conventional methods.
Jones said other polymers in the general polyester class and even nylon could yield similar property improvements with the new catalysts. It is too early to predict when the research could reach the commercial stage but companies in the private sector would be considered in partnerships.
Researchers with IBM and Stanford are using predictive computer modeling to cut down the time and effort for such research.
Work done by Jones and colleagues has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Chemistry. Previous IBM research turned up a new process to recycle plastics into nanofibers that attack fungal infections and a new method for recycling CDs into non-toxic plastics for water purification and medicine. IBM and Stanford have been collaborating on related catalyst technology for several years and reported early results in 2010.