Eugene Chen, a professor at Colorado State University, says he has created a petroleum-free plastic that is fully biodegradable.
In a paper for the journal Nature Chemistry, Chen, who this year won the 2015 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the National Academy of Sciences, describes synthesizing a material that, when reheated, can be converted back to its original molecular state, ready for reuse.
The material Chen used, Gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL is a colorless liquid that is usually utilized as a chemical reactant. Chen said in a release that it was previously regarded as too stable to be created into a polymer plastic. But through a complex cooling and heating process, he was able to do so.
“’Don’t even bother with this monomer',’” Chen said the previous thinking on GBL had been. “‘You cannot make a polymer out of it because the measured reaction thermodynamics told you so.’ We suspected that some of the previous reports were probably incorrect.”
Scott Grayson, a chemist at Tulane University, described Chen's findings as "a nice step in the right direction."
"Finding a bio-available, bio-degradable, and easily recyclable polymer is a bit of a holy grail," Grayson told me in an email. "I think it will take years until the transformative nature of this will be verified."
Indeed, a recent report showed many plastics labeled "biodegradable" that end up in the ocean "rarely disintegrate" because they require "industrial composters and prolonged exposure to high temperatures to break down."
Still, Chen was optimistic.
“In my 15 years at CSU, I would probably call this my group’s most exciting piece of work,” Chen said in the release. “This work creates a class of truly sustainable biopolymers, as they are both biorenewable and recyclable, based on a bioderived monomer previously declared non-polymerizable.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.