Esteemed fellow blogger Chemjobber first made me aware of this wonder polymer back in December. I hoped that the hype would have quickly died down, but was disappointed to find that it is alive and kicking a month later.
The research report was published in Nature Chemistry (subscription required), and describes the ring-opening polymerization of γ-butyrolactone (GBL) to form a type of polyester, as well as the depolymerization of the polymer, accomplished via heating.
That the researchers were complicit in hyping this research is what I find most upsetting.
"Textbooks and scientific literature had described these small molecules as too happy and thermally stable in their monomeric chemical states to polymerize. 'Don’t even bother with this monomer,' Chen summarized the conventional wisdom. 'You cannot make a polymer out of it because the measured reaction thermodynamics told you so.'"Wow. A textbook is wrong? How can that be? (Maybe someone should read yesterday's post about textbook mistakes.) What is more disingenuous about this is that the authors are well aware of previously reports on the polymerization of GBL, since they cited many of these reports and even the review article on the topic. So is this polymerization really that novel?
Wikipedia page. That's right, there are LOTS of polymers that depolymerize upon heating to reform their monomers. So why call this "hot breaking" as if it is something new? (Worse yet, why call the polymerization route "cold fusion"? Who wants to be associated with that?)
That the hype over new wonder polymers is created by people drinking the same Koolaid, look at the term the researchers use to call the thermal depolymerization: "recycling". That is the exact same word used by the researchers at IBM behind last year's wonder polymer (linked to at the beginning) who also claim that reverting their polymer back to its source monomers is "recycling".
Maybe from a very broad viewpoint, it can be viewed as recycling, but this "recycling" takes far more energy, materials and equipment than conventional recycling does. The polymer first has to be heated (far hotter than the melt point) and held at temperature to form the monomers, then the monomers have to be purified (you really don't expect 100% yield, do you?) and then the monomers, with a catalyst have to polymerized. Only then can the polymer pellets be melted and processed. Compare that to conventional recycling: heat the polymers and process them.
If a commercial entity was using this verbiage in advertising, they should expect a Cease and Desist letter in short order from their competitors and/or the government. So how come academia can get away with it?