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Plants into Plastic

March 7, 2012

A new technique generates two key plastic components from plant material.



Plastic from plants.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Most plastics are made from oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel.  Now, University of Utrecht chemist Krijn de Jong and his colleagues have developed a way to make propylene and ethylene, the building blocks of most plastics, from plant material.  The concept had been tried before, but the resulting compounds were useful for only a small subset of plastics.

KRIJN DE JONG (University of Utrecht, Netherlands):

That implies that with our process concept, the chemical industry that produces the plastics already today from propylene and ethlyene, can stay as is, but now there’s a new supply line for the building blocks.

A new type of iron catalyst was the key to making these compounds, which are chemically the same as those derived from oil.  And unlike earlier methods, de Jong’s technique doesn’t generate methane, a greenhouse gas.  The next challenge is to ramp up to mass-production scale.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.