An inexpensive and efficient process for making biodegradable plastics could save millions of tons of petroleum-derived plastics from landfills
Petroleum-based plastics are inexpensive and their superior mechanical properties allow them to be used in everyday life.
Biodegradable plastics obtained from renewable sources provide an attractive alternative, but it has still not been possible for these plastics to meet the performance and price of petroleum plastics.
Researchers at Stanford and IBM Research have recently reported on the discovery of new chemical approaches capable of generating biodegradable fabrics in a cost-effective and efficient manner that is ideal for producing a range of items as diverse as fabrics, medical devices and forks. The current issue of Nature Chemistry has published this study.
The process of developing biodegradable polyesters, like other chemical reactions, requires the support of a catalyst, which is a specific class of chemicals that has the potential to increase the reaction rate or push it over an energetic hurdle. The regular catalysts used to develop biodegradable plastics are metal-based, expensive and difficult to remove from the final material, and they do not decay in the environment.
The catalyst was crafted by reacting common chemical ingredients such as thiourea with a metal alkoxide. This resulted in developing a catalyst that is selective and rapid, highlighting the fact that it excels at facilitating and accelerating reactions and that it does not change the shape or properties of the resulting polymer once it is formed.
While many catalysts are either fast or selective, these catalysts are both. They are simple to prepare, easy to use and can be readily adopted by anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry.
Waymouth stated that the design of the new catalyst helps to reduce environmental impact and cost, and it can also be used to produce a wide range of plastics ideal for varied functions. The work is capable of producing polylactic acid, which is a commercial compostable biodegradable polyester used in disposable plasticware, such as forks, plates, cups and tableware. The new discovery is also used in the medical field for stents, implants, resorbable sutures, drug-delivery materials and biomedical implants. There is also the possibility of using it in everyday items such as non-woven fabrics and food packaging.
The researchers stated that the results obtained are just the first steps even though they are based on 10 years of research.