Plastic fantastic: plastic from trees

Tom James @ 19-05-2009

leafIn preparation for when the oil runs out (or becomes economically unviable to extract – as detailed in The End of Oil by Paul Roberts) scientists have started developing alternative methods for making plastic. In this case from trees:

Some researchers hope to turn plants into a renewable, nonpolluting replacement for crude oil. To achieve this, scientists have to learn how to convert plant biomass into a building block for plastics and fuels cheaply and efficiently. In new research, chemists have successfully converted cellulose — the most common plant carbohydrate — directly into the building block called HMF in one step.

HMF, also known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, can be used as a building block for plastics and “biofuels” such as gasoline and diesel, essentially the same fuels processed from crude oil.

Given that so much of our industrial infrastructure rests on oil it is reassurring that alternative sources of basic materials are being developed.

[from Physorg][image from linh.ngân on flickr]

Recycled plastics make crims harder to catch

Paul Raven @ 07-04-2009

heaps of plastic for recyclingThe increasing prevalence of recycled plastics in the manufacturing industry – doubtless due in part to the currently-struggling Chinese trash-trawling industry – means that a lot of everyday objects are now made from what you might call “mongrel plastics”, a blend of different chemicals with similar physical properties. Which is good news… unless you’re a detective who needs to lift fingerprints from the stuff, that is.

The recycled products may look similar, but the physical and chemical properties differ so widely from the plastics they replace that the techniques honed over recent decades to lift fingerprints off plastics are no longer effective, he says.

Traditionally plastics were made from just one or two chemical building blocks, arranged in a predictable structure. But even plastics with just a trace of recycled feedstock become much more complex. Although consumers are encouraged to separate their plastics for recycling, the resulting plastics are inevitably more of a mongrel product than the pedigree plastics they replace.

Now there’s a nice little rogue state niche industry waiting to be exploited – custom mongrel plastics that defy forensics efforts. The cost of hiring an out-of-work plastics geek would be offset by the higher prices you could charge to your secretive customers. [image by meaduva]

16 year old’s science project finds microbe that digests plastic bags

Tomas Martin @ 28-05-2008

Plastic is a major environmental hazard

Plastic, and in particular plastic grocery bags, are a big environmental problem because of the huge time taken to degrade in the environment. A collection of plastic the size of a large country is currently floating in the gyres of the Pacific Ocean. Some plastic waste takes 1000 years to be broken down by nature.

Daniel Hurd, a 16 year old high school student from Canada, did a science project on microbes and isolated the bacteria that digests the plastic found in grocery bags and other packaging. By concentrating the solution, he found he was able to break down the plastic by up to 40% in just a week. In addition to winning plenty of local and national prizes, Daniel plans to develop his discovery to help get rid of the nasty disposable plastics problem… and ferment some freaky plastic beer in the process!

[via Daily Kos, picture by Phil Dowsing]