An IBM-Stanford breakthrough reverses the polymerization
process to regenerate monomers in their original state, reducing waste and
The new technology may have sustainability implications
across a wide range of industries including biodegradable plastics, plastics
recycling, healthcare and microelectronics.
A new recycling process based on the concept has the
potential to significantly increase the ability to recycle and reuse common PET
and plant-based plastics in the future.
"We're exploring new methods of applying technology and
our expertise in materials science to create a sustainable, environmentally
sound future," says Josephine Cheng, IBM Fellow and vice president, IBM
Research — Almaden. "The
development of new families of organic catalysts brings more versatility to
green chemistry and opens the door for novel applications, such as making
biodegradable plastics, improving the recycling process and drug delivery."
More than 13 billion plastic bottles are consumed each
year. The total plastic bottle recycling rate in the U.S was 27 percent in
2008, up from 24 percent in 2007, according to a report
from the American Chemistry Council. Limited
Re-Use Recycled plastic bottles are limited to "second-generation
reuse," such as motor oil bottles. This means the materials made from recycled
plastic bottles are disposed in landfills. In the U.S., up to 63 lb of plastic
packaging per person is disposed of each year, instead of being repeatedly
If plastic waste can be regenerated into their original
monomers, a significant amount of waste could be avoided. It wasn't clear what
the economics of the new process are.
IBM is also collaborating with scientists from King
Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to develop the recycling
process for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, which is used in
containers for food, beverages and other liquids.
These breakthroughs also hold promise for biomedical
applications. For example, many effective drugs designed to target cancer cells
are often so potent that they attack cancerous and healthy cells alike. The use
of organocatalysis could help in the design of custom polymers that may aid in
delivering drugs to a specific cell or region.
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