By Hyungjun Cho, Member-at-large for the GCI
I was recently inspired by an episode of podcast by NPR’s Planet Money called Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything. It told the story of Leo Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite, which is the plastic that made many commodities affordable for the masses.
Plastic is made of polymers, and many of the common items we use are made from one or more of these polymers. Examples of these polymers are polystyrene, polymethylmethacrylate, and polyethylene and some examples of common items that contain these polymers are Styrofoam™, Plexiglas®, and plastic bags, respectively. Polymers are synthesized by forming bonds between many molecules of same structure, called monomers.
Conventionally, these monomers are produced from chemicals derived from oil, which is a non-renewable feedstock. Environmentally conscious scientists have been trying to make polymers in a more eco-friendly way. The biggest challenge lies in how we obtain monomers from renewable sources.
There are two main approaches to this challenge. The first approach is to produce currently used monomers, such as styrene, from a renewable source. A literature review by Hernandez et al.1 called this approach bioreplacement. The biggest progress in this
approach has been made by engineering the metabolic pathways of bacteria cultures. McKenna et al. 3 have been able to feed glucose to engineered E. coli to produce styrene and release it in the culture medium they are incubating in. The E. coli flask cultures were able to produce styrene to reach concentrations of up to 260 mg/L1,3. Figure 1 shows the metabolic pathway from glucose to styrene.
While this method of producing monomers is promising, there are road blocks that are hindering progress. The biggest issue is toxicity of styrene to the E. coli, which limits the maximum concentration of styrene in the bacterial culture (E. coli can only tolerate up to 300 mg/L styrene1,3). Other challenges that exist with using bacteria include long incubation times, obtaining poor yield of desired product relative to amount of glucose added, and scale up. Looking down the road, these kinds of limitations may prevent this method from being economically and practically viable.
The second approach is called bioadvantage. Polymer chemists take chemicals that are already being produced from renewable feedstock, synthesize polymers, and use said polymers to produce polymer products in hopes of replacing already existing polymer materials. There are many molecules that are being studied for this purpose such as cellulose, starch, anethole, methylene-butyrolactone, and myrcene.
During the podcast by Planet Money, research by the Hillmyer group from University of Minnesota was featured. They aim to synthesize eco-friendly polymer using monomers from renewable feedstock (the bioadvantage method). After many failures to produce viable polymer from corn, coconut, orange peels, etc., they were able to develop a polymer synthesized from a menthol derivative obtained from peppermint2.
A critical challenge to bioadvantage polymers is the need for years of study and passing a battery of regulatory tests before they are adopted. The petroleum based polymers that are being used today already have been researched for decades, which allows them to be used easily by industry. By extension, bioadvantage polymers will need to match or exceed their performance in terms of strength, durability, flexibility, and other properties we require from our plastic. Even when industry is willing to allocate resources to adopt eco-friendly polymers, sometimes it’s the consumers that prove to be even less accommodating. We observed this with the biodegradable bag fiasco by Sun Chips.
It should be mentioned that both bioreplacement and bioadvantage polymers are not necessarily biodegradable. Therefore, we should not call them green polymers.
I will conclude with this: I see the impact that plastic has on our daily lives and I see demand for polymers. Being able to make eco-friendly polymers economically will change the world around you, literally. As Planet Money teaches, the world works in a supply-demand swing. When the kinks in the supply side of eco-friendly polymers are fixed, demand for them will present itself. How soon eco-friendly plastics will develop will depend on us. As green chemists, we should see that the biggest impact we might have in the future, will be making eco-friendly polymers.
(1) Hernández, N.; Williams, R. C.; Cochran, E. W. Org. Biomol. Chem., 2014,12, 2834-2849
(2) Hillmyer, M. A.; Tolman, W. B. Acc. Chem. Res., 2014, 47 (8), pp 2390–2396
(3) Mckenna, R.; Nielsen, D. R. Metab. Eng. 2011, 13 (5), 544–554.