PALO ALTO (CBS SF) — Landfills are plagued by the long lifespan of petroleum-based plastic products, but scientists at Stanford University have developed a new way to make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and grass.
Using grass or agricultural waste and some carbon dioxide, Aanindeeta Banerjee, a chemistry graduate student at Stanford and Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford, spearheaded the creation of the process that makes the new material.
They say the implications could be far-reaching by providing a low-carbon alternative to plastic and polyester-based products.
“Our goal is to replace petroleum-derived products with plastic made from CO2,” said Kanan. “If you could do that without using a lot of non-renewable energy, you could dramatically lower the carbon footprint of the plastics industry.”
Featured in the journal Nature, the team of Stanford researchers describe their findings, explaining that a simple reaction might allow carbon dioxide, of which there is an abundance, to be used to make commercial products.
The problem with the traditional process of manufacturing plastic products with petroleum resources is that is produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Other teams of scientists, such as those at the Dutch firm Avanti, have been converting fructose into plastic, but the scientists at Stanford said they wanted to figure out a way to avoiding growing crops and instead use organic waste materials to manufacture plastic.
So the Stanford team set out to find a low-cost way to manufacture plastic products using inedible biomass and carbon dioxide.
The scientists headed to the lab, where they eventually discovered that by mixing together furoic acid, carbonate and carbon dioxide, and then heating up the mixture, they could create a form of molten salt.
Furoic acid is a derivative of a compound made from agricultural waste called furfural. The scientists say furfural can be found in abundance.
Banerjee, the lead author of the Nature study, found that after five hours, most of the molten-salt mixture had been converted into a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid, or FDCA, a key component in making plastic.
While the scientists’ method uses less non-renewable materials, it still calls for ethylene glycol, which is already widely used in the production of polyester.
Kanan said, “This is just the first step. We need to do a lot of work to see if it’s viable at scale and to quantify the carbon footprint.”
The scientists have also begun applying their new chemistry to the production of renewable fuels.
By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.