Scientists are working to reduce the nation's reliance on fossil fuels by developing environmentally friendly and cost effective plastics from natural, sustainable and renewable materials, such as vegetable oils, starches, sugars, and terpenes--essential organic oils produced by plants, flowers, and conifers--even one day recycled grass clippings. Researchers especially are focused on creating polymers that manufacturers can produce efficiently from renewable starting materials, are non-toxic and can be composted.
The goal is to "reduce reliance on petroleum-based plastics, and help mitigate environmental damage by designing materials that are compostable and, while in use, are harmless," says Marc Hillmyer, a professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota and director of its Center for Sustainable Polymers.
"Many products today contain additives or residual substances that have raised health concerns," he adds. "We'd like to see plastics made from renewable resources that won't ultimately go into landfills, or end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Why not grass clippings? We put them in compost, why not put them in a bio-refinery, make an advanced plastic out of it, then throw that back in the compost? Combing biotechnology advances with state of the art materials chemistry holds tremendous promise for the future of plastics."
The Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) has formed partnerships with more than 25 company affiliates in conducting research and developing new technology to create polymers made from safe and renewable natural sources, thus decreasing the industry's dependence on fossil fuels. Also, it hopes to encourage students, underrepresented minorities in particular, through new education efforts and outreach to consider careers in science, math and engineering in fields related to sustainable resources.
"Nature provides us with a wealth of opportunities to take complicated molecular structures and design materials with new properties that cannot be achieved using the traditional petroleum based products," Hillmyer says. "There is tremendous untapped potential to take natural products and turn them into materials that have sustainable benefits. Replacing the current polymers is one goal, but the future is really in designing, discovering and developing new bio-based materials with more functionality than what we have now."
National Science Foundation
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