Thursday, March 13, 2008

Plastic without oil

Plastic has changed little since its heyday in the 1960s. It's still ubiquitous, oil based, and dirty as hell for the environment. Makes you wonder what we've been doing all these years.

For one thing, not listening enough to chemist Geoffrey Coates. In his lab at Cornell University, he's been reinventing plastic. Making it environmentally friendly and biodegradable -- with orange peels.

The key is limonene, a citrusy-smelling chemical compound made from orange rinds that when oxidized and mixed with carbon dioxide and a catalyst can be turned into a solid plastic. The final product can be made into anything from Saran wrap to medical packaging to beer bottles and naturally biodegrades in just a few months. And because it can be produced using recycled CO2 from carbon-spewing factories, simply making Coates's plastic can help the environment.

Since 1999, when Coates and his colleagues first began experimenting with limonene, they've discovered a number of other natural materials, such as pine trees and soybeans, that can be manipulated into biodegradable polymers as well. And more recently, they've been experimenting with artificially creating polyhydroxybutyrate, a polypropylene-like plastic that is naturally produced by bacteria.

While Coates's natural polymers are more expensive to produce than most current plastics, he stresses that this isn't just another radical innovation that will never make it out of the lab. Novomer, a company he cofounded in 2004, will see its green plastics used in high-end electronics in the next couple of years. Once production is scaled up, less-expensive mainstream consumer products such as food containers will follow soon after.

Doug Cantor
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