CSU team’s discovery could revolutionize plastics

Posted: January 20th, 2016

Chen-recyclable-bioplasticsYou know your discovery is a big deal when you prove textbooks wrong.

Two Colorado State University researchers are taking a red pen to conventional wisdom with their creation of a totally recyclable bioplastic that can be heated, returned to its original state and reused.

No one’s ever done that before. The process they discovered to create the plastic was thought to be impossible.

“It completely closes the life cycle of a material. It’s a truly sustainable material,” said CSU chemistry professor Eugene Chen, who worked with postdoctoral fellow Miao Hong to find the recipe for the miracle plastic.

To understand the wow-factor of Chen and Hong’s discovery, you have to understand something about recycling: Throwing your empty water bottle in a big blue bin isn’t quite as sustainable as you might think.

“Conventional recycling is actually sort of misleading,” Chen said. “You can convert a material to something else to lengthen its life cycle, but you can’t recycle it back to the building block and then recreate the material.”

hongfullInstead, the plastic in your petroleum-derived water bottle usually gets turned into lower quality plastic that can’t be reused for the same purpose.

Not the case with Chen and Hong’s plastic. They created a polymer – science-speak for a large molecule made up of smaller monomers – that can be used and reused again and again.

They embarked on the research project because they were fascinated by an “ideal monomer” called Gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL. It’s a colorless liquid traditionally used as an industrial solvent or reagent to spur chemical reactions.

“In the textbooks, they say you cannot make polymers out of this,” Chen said. “Thermodynamically, it’s forbidden. But we thought some of the reports might be incorrect.”

And they were right.

They found that once cooled to a minus-40 degrees with the right catalyst, the monomers can chemically bond to form a polymer. The newly solid substance, which has a powdery texture, can be processed into different shapes and reborn as plastic wrap, a chair, a toy truck – you name it.

Excerpt from The Coloradoan, written by Jacy Marmaduke.

Read the full article at The Coloradoan.