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February 22, 2012

Scientists Debate Process that Could Turn Plants into Plastics
By Jacqueline Lee
Contributing Writer

Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands have developed an inexpensive process to synthesize ethylene and propylene, the products that make up most modern plastics, from grass clippings and other waste plant products. Even though many are hailing the breakthrough, some scientists foresee serious problems with the practice.

Utrecht University researchers are using nanotechnology, creating a class of iron catalysts that incorporates some sulfur and sodium. The scientists burn plants, producing a combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. In the presence of the catalyst, the gas releases particles that can string together to form plastics.

In the past, methane byproducts and carbon dust compromised the transformation of plants into plastics. However, senior study author Krijn P. de Jong and his team developed the right catalyst mix to produce a higher concentration of plastic with fewer byproducts. Ultimately, researchers want to create a catalyst that converts the burnt plant material into plastics with very little waste.

Critics of the process point out that the newly created plant plastics will be non-biodegradable. Scientists have created plastics from corn that are biodegradable, but these plastics have limited uses. However, plastic products created by the Utrecht team’s process can be recycled as easily as oil-based plastics. The challenge will be developing consumer awareness about the importance of not disposing of the products in landfills.

The Utrecht team theorizes that the plastics can be made from fast-growing grasses and trees, even though some chemists point out that the Dutch scientists have not gone from wood or grass burning straight to plastic formation. Environmentalists worry that more tropical rain forests could be razed to create environments for these fast-growing biomass plants when people realize the economic possibilities for producing plant-based products. Environmentalists also worry that farmers will grow biomass instead of producing crucial agricultural products.

Other scientists point to the vast deposits of shale gas that have been recently discovered around the world. These gases also produce ethylene, offering an additional alternative to fossil fuels that would not endanger valuable rain forests and agricultural lands. De Jong points out that no product will reach the market for several years because much testing and piloting of the process needs to be completed.

The Dutch team’s research has great implications for the environment as well as for nanotechnology. However, people will have to decide how to balance the need for fossil fuel alternatives with the need to provide food and water for a rapidly rising global population.

Edited by Rich Steeves


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