Stanford, IBM craft new catalyst for making biodegradable plastics

The development of plastics is one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century, but these petroleum-based plastics come with a hefty cost.

A group of chemists from Stanford University and IBM has developed new chemical approaches to generating biodegradable plastics efficiently and inexpensively. This catalyst is derived from recyclable materials and will be a promising alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

As with many chemical reactions, creating biodegradable polyesters requires the assistance of a catalyst – a special class of chemicals that increases the rate of a reaction or pushes it over the energy hurdle. The standard catalysts used to make biodegradable plastics are metal-based, which are difficult or expensive to remove from the final material, and do not degrade.

The new catalyst presented by the research group is made from common organic compounds and comes with a lower cost and a more friendly environmental impact. It is also highly tunable and can be used for many things. It can produce polylactic acid, a commercially compostable biodegradable polyester used in disposable plasticware, such as tableware, cups, plates, and forks. It also has medical applications for resorbable sutures, implants, and stents, as well as biomedical implants and drug delivery materials. Its function can also be extended to everyday items such as food packaging and non-woven fabrics.

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