Scientists find a way to use plants in plastic production

Written By: Thatcher Michelsen February 17, 2012 0
Using synthetic gas produced by plants, researchers found a more efficient way to make plastic.
Using synthetic gas produced by plants, researchers found a more efficient way to make plastic.

It's been well documented that the non-biodegradable nature of plastics makes them less-than-ideal for those who are trying to lead a green lifestyle. In addition to piling up in landfills, plastics consume roughly 4 percent of the world's oil supply, according to the University of Cambridge.

Dutch researchers say that they've found a new way to make plastics with renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, according to the results of a study they published in the peer-reviewed journal Science this week.

The main building block of plastics is a crude oil derivative, but the research team led by senior author Krijn de Jong, an inorganic chemistry professor at Utrecht University, was able to create a class of iron catalysts that could be used to turn plant material into an alternate building block. This material can then be used to create plastics, drugs and cosmetics, according to the Los Angeles Times.

When crude oil gas is mixed with special catalysts, it produces synthetic fibers called lower olefins that make plastic when they chemically bond. Traditional catalysts produce a significant amount of methane emissions and aren't very effective, so in order to make the process more efficient, de Jong and his researchers wanted to find an alternative derived from a greener source.

When some plants are burned, they release a synthetic gas that's similar to the one produced by crude oil. With that, the scientists developed a new iron catalyst that actually yielded 50 percent more lower olefins than typical catalysts. In other words, the combination of plant-produced gas and the iron catalyst could be a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way of creating plastic.

University of Kentucky chemist Butron Davis, who did not take part in the study, explained to the Times that this is just the first step of many to completely change a complex and pricey process.

Either way, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

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