Looking Forward in Plastics

New Processes for Plastics Emerging

Here are some of the new developments in efforts to make plastics that are more eco-friendly:

Plastic into fuel There are several formulations. One is to convert polyethylene into diesel without waste products or pollution, using rhenium and iridium catalysts. Another to use end-of-life plastics that usually cannot be recycled into crude oil. Another is a small tabletop household machine that heats plastic, runs it though cooling pipes and chambers until it condenses back into oil. While these methods could remove millions of tons of plastic garbage, they still would contribute to carbon emissions. Another process has been created that turns plastic into ethanol, using a cheap and affordable catalyst called calcium bentonite, which breaks plastic down into ethane, methane and propane.

Biodegradable and compostable plastic The development of bioresin has helped in developing a more environmentally friendly plastic and plastic-based products. There are two types of bioresin: degradable and compostable. Degradable bioresins can be broken down continually into smaller and smaller pieces. Compostable resins can be reduced to simple biological matter and be used as mulch after being mixed with specific byproducts at a composting plant. Both of these new plastics are projected to grow by 20% per year, with plastic film being the primary application for both, especially in the medial and food industries.

Edible food packaging to reduce plastic waste Edible packaging is versatile and eco-friendly because it can be eaten or composted, and it may drastically reduce plastic packaging waste. Packaging made from casein, a milk protein, can be eaten or composted and will be especially useful for single-serve items (think string cheese, where the edible packaging would be protected by a separate package to keep the casein clean and sanitary to eat). And there is Shrilk, a biocompatible and biodegradable edible film packaging made from shrimp shells and silk. It is only half the weight of comparable aluminum alloys but matches their strength and toughness.

New process tested biodegradable plastics Mango Materials, located in the San Francisco Bay area, developed a new process to create a biopolymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate from methane by using bacterial fermentation, which makes the material biodegradable and petroleum-free. The new material has the added advantage of capturing methane and sequestering the carbon into a high-value material. The technology would be located at the site of methane production to reduce methane emissions. The company has determined that capturing methane from U.S. landfills would produce more than 3 billion pounds of biopolymer ever year. The company is using grants and working with the Energy Department’s Small Business Vouchers pilot program and the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory to test a final step of removing water from the final biopolymer and to scale up their business.

Biodegradable and edible utensils These tools can easily withstand hot-food temperatures.

Six-pack ring holders for beverages Ring holders made from wheat and barley are being developed from the natural by-products of beer production and are edible and more friendly to animals and sea life than current models.

Biodegradable plastics Under development are biodegradable plastics that can rot unaided in a ditch or in a landfill, using plant sugars, starches and seaweed. The plastics decay into carbon dioxide and can produce methane. Ideally, a way to capture the methane can be found.

Biorenewable, biodegradable plastic alternatives Colorado State University researchers have found a new way to produce a compound called bacterial poly(3- hydroxybutyrate), or P3HB, which shows promise as a substitute for petroleum plastics in medical and major industrial uses. The researchers are using a starting material called succinate, which is produced by the fermentation of glucose, and is much quicker and less expensive to produce and scale up than P3HB compounds formed using algae, bacteria and other microorganisms.

Structure of bacterial enzyme that generates useful polymers discovered Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have found the structure of PHA, an enzyme that nearly all bacteria use to produce large polymers that store carbon when food is scarce. Bacteria produce different types of polymers depending on the starting material. PHA synthase can string together up to 30,000 subunits, making much larger polymers than humans can make. The researchers found a way to crystallize the protein and then perform x-ray crystallography to reveal the protein’s atomic and molecular structure. The researchers now can see the entrance and exit structures, thereby enabling them to make specialty polymer additives, latex and medical applications. But the process is not cost efficient enough to compete with oil-based plastics for most uses. The researchers hope this new framework will enable them make better polymers with unique properties and open up new materials and applications in the future.

Other efforts are looking at new types of industrial recycling plants that can recycle our current and future plastics on a larger scale, including cars and other large-scale items. Stay tuned.

Sources: ; Thomas Industry Update; Colorado State University; MIT News Office; U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Beyond Plastics: Four New Inventions in 2018

Shoes that could help save the world

Retail startup Allbirds is moving away of petroleum-based footwear with SweetFoam, a product made from parts of sugarcane that are now discarded as trash. The company started with flip-flops and are moving on to incorporate its use in their entire product line. Most exciting, they have made the technical know-how behind SweetFoam available to everyone who wants it.

The electric semi truck

Thor ET-One has converted a formerly fuel-burning truck into a sleek electric semi prototype that can haul up to 80,000 pounds for up to 300 miles per charge. While there are other new electric rigs in the works with other companies, Thor’s makers are confident that converting old trucks can help their company make a difference now–not in the future.

A more efficient water heater

Heatworks Model 3 Smart Water Heater sends electrical current through the water to heat it quicky and only when residents need hot water, rather than having the water sit ready in the tank. The company estimates a savings of $240 a year for the average family of four.

Roofing that fights smog pollution

3M has created a material for roofing shingles that breaks down smog particles so they can be washed away by rainfall, and Malarkey Roofing (a top U.S. shingle manufacturer) has already starting using these new granules in their shingles, which they say has reduced the smog equivalent to 100,000 trees. They are aiming to double this figure next year and again the following year.

Source: “The 50 Best Inventions of 2018, Time, Nov. 25/Dec. 3, 2018.

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