Utilizing New Feedstocks to Access the Next-Generation of Materials
Megan L. Robertson, University of Houston
The production of polymers, such as plastics and rubber materials, is an immense global industry, with around 100 billion pounds produced annually (American Chemistry Council, 2013). Polymers are found everywhere in our daily lives, including disposable products (such as water bottles and plastic bags), durable or longer-lasting products (such as automotive and aerospace components and construction materials for homes and other buildings), and consumable goods (such as hair care products). Polymers will also play an important role in addressing grand challenges facing the world today, including low-cost water purification systems to provide clean water to the developing world; materials to enable alternative energy technologies such as solar, wind and batteries; and biomedical polymers to address limitations in current medical technologies. Though ubiquitous in our society, the production of polymers relies upon a finite resource: petroleum oils. The reliance upon petroleum oils for polymers raises many concerns: 1) fossil fuels cannot be regenerated at the rate at which we are depleting them, 2) the processing of petroleum oils to create chemicals and plastics generates harmful environmental emissions, and 3) polymers are generally not biodegradable and the majority end up in landfills after their useful lifetime (around 9% of plastics are recycled; EPA 2012).
In this session, we will discuss an alternative approach which can address these limitations, which is to employ underutilized, and potentially more environmentally friendly, resources to create polymers. We will present a diverse array of alternative resources which have utility as feedstocks for polymers, ranging from sulfur (an accumulating byproduct of the petroleum industry with few current uses) to silicon (the second most commonly found element in the earth’s crust) to agricultural and biomass products (such as plant oils, lignin, cellulose, and plant sugars). We will discuss challenges which face the development of new materials to replace conventional polymers, including 1) developing strategies for converting these unconventional feedstocks to polymers, 2) optimizing the new material properties so they are competitive to or superior than that of standard petroleum-derived polymers used today, 3) addressing concerns related to the cost of implementing polymers derived from alternative resources relative to petroleum feedstocks, and 4) considering the life cycle and environmental impact of the new materials.