Friday, August 19, 2016

The plastics revolution: we already had it

A news feature article in this week's Nature entitled "The plastics revolution: how chemists are pushing polymers to new limits" is more of the same old, same old. And it doesn't help that it's from the same old researchers contributing to this nonsense.

The same old researchers being Lodge and Hillmeyer of Minnesota and the Center for Sustainable Polymers in particular, (They seem to be everywhere these days, even on the local news a few weeks back). And the same old hype is that we are about to enter a fantastic new future where bio-sourced polymers will magically appear and be so much better than the polymers we have now.

As I've discussed many times in the past, the future of polymers is already here. Polyethylene? It's currently derived from petroleum, but it is already established that it can be made from bio-based feedstocks such as corn, beets and sugar cane. Ferment the sugars to ethanol and then dehydrate it (remove H2O) and you have ethylene. That ethylene can then be a true, drop-in replacement for the petroleum-sourced ethylene to make polyethylene (PE).

This process will overwhelmingly crush any other options for making a bio-based polymer that is functionally equivalent to PE because it takes advantage of the existing capital equipment. To make the (mythical) alternative polymer, new capital investments will have to be made and there will be plenty of risks with that path.

And so it goes with the other Big 6 polymers (polypropylene, polystyrene, vinyl and polyester). Processes are being developed to create biobased versions of the petroleum-based monomers so that existing equipment can be used to polymerize them. Yet somehow researchers keep thinking that they can create some miraculous new polymer to displace them. Sure, right, good luck with that.

The plastics revolution is not in the future, it was in the past when plastics began to become an essential part of modern life. Changing to alternative feedstocks will undoubtedly create new polymers, but those polymers will only be successful when they fulfill the requirements of a new product, not the requirements of an existing product. And that is not a revolutionary thought. Not at all.

Previous Years

August 19, 2014 - The Death Ray returns to my backyard

August 19, 2013 - Defects in Crystalline Polymers - Part 1

August 19, 2010 - Updating Your Resume

August 19, 2009 - What I did for my summer vacation


Carlos Barragán said...
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Carlos Barragán said...

Cool insight. When do you think biologically derived sources of monomers will supersede petroleum sources? Come to think of it, maybe biologically derived is not a completely specific name, since petroleum itself is biologically derived.