New Catalyst Leaves No Heavy Metals in Plant-Based Biodegradable Plastics

Cheaper Biodegradable Plastics with New Catalyst from IBM & Stanford University

IBM Research and Stanford University researchers have teamed up to create chemical catalyst which can be used to produce cheaper plant based biodegradable plastics.


IBM Research's Almaden facility has recently developed several plastics and recycling technologies including: a process to recycle plastics into nanofibers designed to specifically target and attack fungal infections, an entirely new class of plastic and a new method for recycling CDs into non-toxic plastics for water purification and medicine.

IBM Research and Stanford University researchers have teamed up to create chemical catalyst which can be used to produce cheaper plant based biodegradable plastics.

IBM explained that while biodegradable disposable items such as cutlery are already on the market, consumers often opt for more cost-effective, petroleum-based alternatives.

According to the researchers the current method to convert plants into biodegradable plastics imparts heavy metals into the process. While used in small amounts, these heavy metals are difficult to remove, remain in the material and do not decompose over time.

However, IBM Research said that the new catalyst is an organic substance that lowers the energy required for the conversion from plant to plastic to occur. Because it does not contain heavy metals the researchers claimed that it will, along with the plastic itself, in the environment.

“What’s exciting about this discovery is that we now have a cheaper way to convert plants into common consumer plastics that decompose over time, providing an alternative to recycling plastics,” said Gavin O. Jones, computational chemist, IBM Research –Almaden, San Jose,. “Making biodegradable plastics mainstream means less impact on our solid waste systems.”

The work has been the subject of a research paper published in Nature Chemistry. If you have a good grasp of scientific terminology a more thorough explanation of the science behind the catalyst can be found HERE

“In this study, we used a combination of predictive modelling and experimental lab work to make the discovery,” explained Xiangyi Zhang, graduate student working with Dr. Robert Waymouth, Department of Chemistry, Stanford University.

“This tag-team approach takes a lot of the guess work out of the process and helps us accelerate the materials discovery process,” Zhang continued.

Cognitive Systems
The learning from these research efforts was also said to be applicable to advance cognitive systems. The scale, pace and complexity of materials science is a challenge for scientists working to discover new materials.

As part of the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, scientists are combining expertise in informatics and polymers, and other materials, to prototype systems to extract, organise, analyse, and predict insights from materials datasets.

By leveraging existing knowledge from the world’s scientific databases and accelerating computations used in these types of experiments, IBM Research said that these cognitive tools could help identify patterns and to bring new discoveries to realisation faster.

The study was published in Nature Chemistry under a long-standing collaboration with Stanford University’s Department of Chemistry and funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

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