Monday, June 10, 2013

The Future of Sustainable Polymers: Bio-based Monomers or Polymers?

Macro Letters has a new article entitled: "Sustainable Polymers: Opportunities for the Next Decade". As this was in Letters, the review is brief. A major focus is on water degradable polyacetals, polycarbonates and polyoxalates that are derived from lignins, and also on formaldehyde based polymers, which the author calls "the new polyethylene". I find all of this chemistry quite interesting as it is rather remote from what I learned in school (and in my career thus far). These polymers will have new properties that aren't readily available to standard commercial polymers, and even though some have claimed to have invented the "perfect polymer", we are not there yet (or anywhere close). These new polymers have plenty of exciting opportunities ahead.

But then the author goes on the attack and that is where I have to disagree with him:
"The Chief Technology Officer of a Fortune 100 Company recently communicated that they are “highly interested in finding bio-based routes to [incumbent] commodity plastics which fit with current processing and disposal infrastructures,” but are “less concerned with developing new-to-the-world biodegradable plastics for our packaging and products.”
I understand the CTO's point completely. If you have a biosourced monomer, it is rather trivial to keep producing the same polymers that you always have. The molecular weight, molecular weight distribution, crystallinity, branching, endgroups, crosslinking and a slew of other characteristics that have a tremendous impact on the processability of the polymer will all be the same. That is no small feat.

On the other hand, introducing a new polymer to the world is a long and challenging task. Many companies, even those with tremendously deep pockets, are not up to the task. Dow has pulled the plug on many a polymer, while GE has showed a little more patience, but the 15 years that it took Ultem to break even is getting close to the economic cycles of pharmaceuticals. Few chemical companies want to play that game. It is simply the economic realities, and sadly, this academic's viewpoint is unaware of it.

It's too bad that such naive opinions were at the conclusion of this article, as it put a bad tail on what would have otherwise been a very good article.

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