Stanford chemists craft catalyst for making biodegradable plastics

Stanford News July 28, 2016Stanford chemists craft catalyst for making biodegradable plastics
A long-standing collaboration between Stanford and IBM chemists has led to the development of a catalyst that could make biodegradable plastics derived from renewable materials – promising alternatives to plastics made from oil.


By Bjorn Carey

The development of petroleum-based plastics is one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century, but they come with a hefty cost.
Yes, they’re inexpensive and feature extraordinary mechanical properties that have made them the materials of everyday life.
An inexpensive and efficient process for making biodegradable plastics could save millions of tons of petroleum-derived plastics from landfills. (Image credit: Aleksandar Jaksic / Getty Images)

However, the vast scale of plastics manufacturing and the environmental consequences associated with disposal have illuminated the limits to which the planet can cope with our current “take, make and dispose” model of resource utilization. Biodegradable plastics derived from renewable sources offer an attractive alternative, but so far they can’t match the price and performance of petroleum plastics.
Now, researchers at Stanford and IBM Research report the development of new chemical approaches that could efficiently and inexpensively generate biodegradable plastics suitable for making an array of items as diverse as forks, medical devices and fabrics. The study is published in the current issue of Nature Chemistry.
As with many chemical reactions, creating biodegradable polyesters requires the assistance of a catalyst – a special class of chemical that increases the rate of a reaction or pushes it over an energetic hurdle. The standard catalysts used to make biodegradable plastics are metal-based, which are difficult or expensive to remove from the final material, and do not degrade in the environment.
The research group headed by Robert Waymouth of Stanford and James Hedrick of IBM Research presents an alternative catalyst made from common organic compounds.
The researchers crafted the catalyst by …

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