em>Geoffrey Coates: Most people would acknowledge that plastics are really essential. To me, it would be really hard to imagine a day without plastics.
That’s Geoffrey Coates, a chemist at Cornell University. He’s created a range of new plastics from renewable resources, which are almost indistinguishable from many of today’s plastics.
Geoffrey Coates: There’s a lot of interest in trying to get away from oil as a way to make plastics. So, going to a renewable resource – something that’s plentiful in the environment – is of a lot of interest.
One of his plastics is made using carbon dioxide, which Coates calls a ‘virtually unlimited’ resource, since it’s abundant in the atmosphere. Coates said the biggest challenge was finding the right catalyst – that’s a chemical that converts other chemicals from one form to another.
Geoffrey Coates: Carbon dioxide is a gas, and obviously plastic is a solid. Carbon dioxide is mixed with other chemicals, and they’re hooked together to make these molecular chains that we know as plastics.
Coates said that his so-called ‘green’ – or environmentally friendly – plastics biodegrade more quickly than traditional plastics.
Geoffrey Coates: They have linkages in the backbone of the plastic that react with water over longer periods of time – unlike polyethylene and polypropylene, which can last for decades, if not centuries.
Geoffrey Coates began developing his green plastic when he started his lab at Cornell:
Geoffrey Coates: And so we really quickly focused on carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, simply because they are inexpensive, and due to their wide availability. The academic challenge was to find ways to build these into plastics.
In order for this plastic to replace plastic made from fossil fuels, it must be less expensive, he said:
Geoffrey Coates: If it’s not cheaper, no one will buy these products.
One of the plastics his research team created is similar to the plastics used today. The advantage is that the new material can be easily adapted for mainstream use:
Geoffrey Coates: We don’t have to invent a whole new set of applications and go through new set of testing because this is a plastic that is very well known.
Green plastic products are being developed by Novomer, a company Coates co-founded.
Coates believes these plastics have the potential to be even more affordable than today’s fossil fuel-based plastics.
Our thanks today to the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.