A big step towards a sustainable chemicals industry

Food waste and by-products could make sustainable plastic and energy without petrochemicals, according to German researchers. The discovery has big implications for those seeking new, cost-efficient methods of manufacturing.

“We could take a big step towards a sustainable chemicals industry if we did not use crude oil as the starting material, but rather biomass that is not used as a foodstuff,” said Ruhr-Universität Bochum chemist Wolfgang Schuhmann in a press release.

In a study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie last month, Schuhmann and his colleagues found that nickel boride could be used as a catalyst that could turn plants and other biomass into polyesters. The process converted around 98.5 per cent of the starting material into plastic without waste products.

What’s more, the chemical process that would create the new plastic could also be tailored to create hydrogen, a potential energy source often described an alternative to oil and other sources that emit greenhouse gases. Usually, industry would need to use electricity to extract hydrogen from water, with oxygen as a byproduct. Engineers have created cars and other devices that can operate on hydrogen, but the cost of producing and transporting the volatile gas usually produces greenhouse gases and undercuts its effectiveness as an alternative energy.

“The particularly energy-consuming reaction step, oxygen evolution, was eliminated,” the researchers said.

The German Research Foundation, German Academic Exchange Service and Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología provided funding for the research.

Image credit: Jon Moore via Unsplash

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