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IBM Making Advances In Biodegradable Plastic

March 9, 2010

Researchers at IBM said they have discovered a way to make biodegradable plastic from plants that could replace petroleum-based plastics and other products that are not good for the environment.

According to Chandrasekhar “Spike” Narayan, a manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in Northern California, the discovery promises Earth-friendly plastic products that are made in way that will save energy.

“This discovery and new approach using organic catalysts could lead to well-defined, biodegradable molecules made from renewable resources in an environmentally responsible way,” IBM said in a release.

The breakthrough using “organic catalysts” means that plastics could be repeatedly recycled instead of only once as is the case with plastics made with metal-oxide catalysts. Organic plastic could also be made “biocompatible” to improve the targeting of drugs in the human body, such as cancer medicines aimed at killing cancer cells while sparing healthy ones, IBM told AFP.

Bob Allen, senior manager of chemistry and functional materials for IBM’s Almaden research center in Silicon Valley, said the organic catalysts can reduce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic to its basic building blocks, while retaining its original properties which could make it very economical to reuse.

IBM is working with scientists at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi to use the breakthrough in the recycling of plastics in food and beverage containers.

“We’re exploring new methods of applying technology and our expertise in materials science to creating a sustainable, environmentally sound future,” said Almaden lab research director Josephine Cheng.

Andrew Williamson, a director with the venture capital firm Physic Ventures who has seen IBM’s research, told The Associated Press the discovery could help solve one of the biggest challenges food and beverage companies face with designing environmentally friendly packaging.

“These commodity plastics like PET are very low cost,” Williamson said. “What they’ve come up with will have to prove to be competitive on cost, and that remains to be seen.” His company invests money on behalf of two major food and beverage corporations.

Details of the work are published this week in the American Chemical Society journal Macromolecules.

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