The biggest story in materials this year is sustainability. Producers and users alike are looking for plastics made from feedstocks that are not as environmentally damaging as petroleum. I’ve written extensively on ambitious programs in Japan as well as the major DuPont initiative. Now comes another big story: Dow Chemical Co. is building a world-scale polyethylene plant in Brazil using sugarcane-based ethanol as the feedstock. Dow’s partner is Crystalev, a major Brazilian ethanol producer. Expected to begin production in 2011, the facility will have a capacity of 350,000 metric tons annually.
This is a positive development on many fronts. Most importantly, sugar cane is a much more efficient source of biofeedstock than corn, which is used in North America. In fact, sugarcane is eight times more efficient as a feedstock than corn. Widespread use of corn as a plastic or fuel material also puts stress on global food supplies. It also makes no sense from an environmental perspective, given the amount of petroleum required to make ethanol.
On a molecular level, the new sugarcane-based material will be identical to current high-grade PE products made by Dow around he world from petroleum. In other words, it will be a drop-in replacement for applications including pipe, film, membranes and packaging. The new material will also be fully recyclable using current infrastructure. Dow also made pains to point out the new plant will not be built in a rainforest.
Dow Chemical and several other companies have launched a program in Omaha, Neb. to divert about 36 tons of plastics from landfills in its first phase, and convert it into energy used for cement production.
A make-your-own Star Wars Sith Lightsaber hilt is heftier and better-looking than most others out there, according to its maker, Sean Charlesworth. You can 3D print it from free source files, and there's even a hardware kit available -- not free -- so you can build one just in time for Halloween.
Some next-generation bio-based materials are superior in performance to their petro-based counterparts, but also face some commercial challenges. This is especially true of certain biopolymers, adhesives, coatings, and advanced materials.
Cars and other vehicles, as well as electronics and medical devices, continue to lead the use cases for the new plastics products we've been seeing, as engineers design products for tougher environments.
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