Chemistry

Next-Generation Commodity Plastics from Plants Instead of Petroleum
Stephen Miller, University of Florida

This seminar will discuss current worldwide efforts to synthesize commodity plastics from plant biomass instead of petroleum and other fossil fuels. Currently, less than 0.2 % of synthetic plastics have sustainable origins, but the bioplastics industry is growing rapidly at about one billion $USD per year largely because of increased consumer demand. Some approaches are conservative but more immediately impactful, such as establishing biosynthetic routes to making polymer building blocks identical to those available from petrochemistry. Other approaches are more aggressive and economically risky, such as growing industrially novel plastics in genetically modified crops. Currently, the most successful biorenewable synthetic plastic is polylactic acid, which is sourced predominantly from cornstarch that is digested to sugar and then fermented to lactic acid. A thorough life-cycle analysis for a polymer considers its birth, life, and death. Thus, a key consideration beyond the molecular origins of a polymer is its degradation pathway. Most approaches rely on polymer biodegradation, but this generally requires stringent composting conditions than are not easily replicated by consumers. Other methods include photo-degradation and oxo-degradation, but these too have serious limitations. The perfectly sustainable commodity plastic has yet to be invented and must satisfy strict requirements with regards to: biomass origins; eco-friendly production cycles; thermal and mechanical properties; degradation behavior; and degradation products. A truly revolutionary material that will displace substantial petroleum-based market share will likely be scalable with regard to its entire lifecycle. Therefore, realistic expectations predict a production via conventional chemical processing of biomass—instead of biosynthetic fermentation—and a degradation that is programmed through relatively simple processes, such as water-degradation. Eventually a holistically sustainable commodity plastic will emerge; hopefully the wait will be years and not decades.

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Chemistry

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