Green chemistry and the quest for environmentally sustainable plastics

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White House recognizes IBM Research scientist for green chemistry breakthrough.

While exploring metal-free materials and processes for the thin polymeric films used in microprocessors, IBM researcher Jim Hedrick and Stanford University professor Dr. Robert Waymouth discovered that these chip development techniques can also be used in organocatalysis – the use of organic materials instead of metals in order to increase the rate of a chemical reaction.  The goal was to create highly recyclable, even biodegradable, plastics to be used in a myriad of ways, such as medication packaging and water desalination.

What is Green Chemistry
Green chemistry is the application of chemicals and chemical processes to reduce or eliminate the negative environmental impacts of pollution.

The use and production of these chemicals may involve reducing waste products in industrial settings; replacing tin-based components in cosmetics, nylons and polyesters with non-toxic polymers; and making plastic recycling more efficient.

For pioneering the application of organocatalysis, Hedrick, who works in IBM Research’s Advanced Organic Materials department in Almaden, and Waymouth, a chemistry professor, are being recognized with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Presidential Green Chemistry Award. This green chemistry discovery and approach could lead to the creation of biodegradable materials made from renewable resources.

Green chemistry pioneers

Motivated by a desire to generate new classes of metal-free plastics for microelectronic applications, Hedrick and Waymouth first focused their efforts on ring-opening polymerization – a strategy dominated by metal oxide or metal hydroxide catalysts that allows larger polymer chains to form. They have shown that these organic catalysts not only exhibit activities that rival the most active metal-based catalysts, but by virtue of their novel linking mechanisms, provide access to polymer architectures that are difficult to access by conventional approaches.

Plastics are ubiquitous and useful modern materials, but their widespread utility and indiscriminate disposal has also left an adverse and enduring environmental legacy.

Hedrick and Waymouth’s new methods for generating biodegradable and biocompatible plastics could, for example, eliminate the leaching of antimony, the toxic metal from commercial poly ethyleneterephthalate (PET) commonly used to make water bottles.

Achieving this vision, however, will require: 
  • The conversion of renewable resources to products with the cost and performance equal or superior to existing materials.
  • The development of more environmentally benign catalytic processes.
  • The implementation of recycling or biodegradation strategies that would enable a closed-loop life cycle for these materials.
Catalysis is a foundational pillar for sustainable chemical processes and the discovery of highly active, environmentally benign catalytic processes is a central goal of green chemistry. Environmentally sustainable plastics, smarter recycling methods, new ways to deliver medicine– these are all areas that could benefit from these recent discoveries in green polymer chemistry.
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