Veggie (Scrap) Tales – Are plant-based polymers the answer to our plastic conundrum?

By Molly Sung, Secretary for the GCI

Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet. Everything from our toothbrushes, to pens, take-out containers, or parts used in the automotive or aeronautic industries are made from plastic. What started off as a convenient and cheap alternative to traditional materials has become a global reliance – and it’s taking its toll.

Traditional plastics are petroleum-based – and as we know, petroleum is a non-renewable resource and its extraction, processing, and use contributes to environmental pollution and climate change. When plastic bags were first gaining popularity in the 1950s and 60s, one of the selling points of using plastic bags was that they were more durable and long-lasting than paper,1 but that’s also exactly the problem. Plastic doesn’t degrade easily like paper does, so it starts to accumulate. This accumulation in landfills and, unfortunately, our waters has spurred research in the development of plastics that can break down over time.

An example of a biodegradable plastic is polylactic acid (PLA). The starting material, lactic acid, can be obtained through fermentation of crops such as sugarcane or corn, which can undergo condensation to form short chains (oligomers). Next, these oligomers undergo depolymerization to form lactide, a cyclic ester, which is then polymerized with the help of a catalyst to give PLA, shown in Figure 1.2


Figure 1. Synthesis of polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic, from lactic acid.

PLA performs comparably to the popular commercial plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET, labelled with the “1” inside the recycling symbol). It is currently used in food packaging (such as disposable cups), as medical implants,2 and has also found renewed popularity as a common filament for 3D printing, but it’s not without its problems. The monomer, lactide, can have varying stereochemistry which influences the final polymer product and the mechanical properties of the plastic. Significant strides have been made in this area of research, but possibly the biggest barrier to using PLA is the competition with the food industry for the starting material. This is incidentally the same problem many first-generation biofuels ran into. But what if we could take food waste and turn it into usable plastics?

While there are some technologies being developed to use non-food materials like cellulose as a bioplastic, many of these methods require fairly harsh reactions. A gentler, water-based approach to make a cellulose-based plastic was recently reported by a research team from the Italian Institute of Technology and the University of Milano-Bicocca in the journal Green Chemistry.3


Figure 2. Image of the bioplastic films made from different vegetable powders: (A) carrot, (B) parsley, (C) radicchio, (D) cauliflower. Reproduced from Perotto et al. [3].

This new technique uses waste from the food-industry, including carrot, cauliflower, radicchio, or parsley waste. The vegetable matter must first be dried and ground into a micronized powder, but otherwise no further processing or purification is required to make the veggie waste usable in this process. To make the plastic films, the researchers simply mixed the vegetable powder with a weakly acidic solution (5 % HCl w/w) at 40 °C, then removed any residual acid through dialysis and let the suspension dry in a petri dish for 48 hours. This process has a 90 % conversion of the vegetable waste into bioplastic (by weight) and the product has very promising mechanical properties (Figure 2).

In particular, in measuring the elasticity and tensile strength of the bioplastic films, it was found that the carrot film had comparable properties to polypropylene (commonly used for rigid plastic containers – otherwise referred to as number “5” plastics).

The researchers also tested important factors for plastics being considered for food storage applications. First, they studied whether the films would interact with water. The parsley film was found to absorb water fairly readily. Conversely, the carrot filmed exhibited hydrophobic behaviour – an uncommon characteristic for vegetable-derived plastics. This hydrophobic behaviour means that the moisture from food is unlikely to soak through the plastic film or structurally damage it.

One very interesting property of the radicchio waste is that it is rich in anthocyanins. Anthocyanin is what gives radicchio, red cabbage, and beets their vibrant red colour. More importantly, anthocyanins are known anti-oxidants and materials rich in these anti-oxidants are currently being investigated as food-packaging materials that extend the shelf-life of food.4 Unfortunately, these vegetable films tested to be fairly permeable to oxygen, which would offset any benefit from the antioxidant-rich radicchio film. However, the researchers showed that if the vegetable waste was blended with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), the oxygen permeability can be reduced significantly and was even an improvement on the pure PVA.

Lastly, and very importantly, the researchers tested for the biodegradability of the films. To test the rate of biodegradation, the researchers submerged the carrot film in seawater to measure the rate of oxygen consumption by the seawater organisms responsible for the biodegradation of the film. They found that the film decomposed fairly quickly in 15 days.

These scientists have now demonstrated a very mild process in the synthesis of bioplastics that have mechanical properties similar to one of the most common commercial plastics. They have also made a plastic that, because of the presence of anthocyanins, may have applications in food storage that can help reduce food-waste.

What is especially promising about these bioplastics is how little purification of the vegetable waste is required to make them; however, there are improvements to be made. A major obstacle these materials will face is their performance in wet or humid environments as well as scaling up to an industrial process. It is clear that we need more sustainable materials and these vegetable waste plastics present an exciting new avenue towards biodegradable bioplastics.



  1. Laskow. How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular. The Atlantic [Online] 2014.
  2. Gupta et al., J. Prog. Polym. Sci. 2007, 32, 4, 455-482. DOI: 10.1016/j.progpolymsci.2007.01.005
  3. Perotto et al., Green Chemistry, 2018, 20, 804-902. DOI: 10.1039/C7GC03368K
  4. N. Tran, et al., Food Chemistry, 2017, 216, 324-333. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.08.055
Glycoside Hydrolases: A Doorway to Alternative Energy

Glycoside Hydrolases: A Doorway to Alternative Energy

By Namrata Jain, GreenChem UBC (Invited post!)

Biofuels, in particular bioethanol, are widely accepted as carbon-neutral fuels1, meaning they have no net greenhouse gas emissions; the amount of carbon dioxide produced during their combustion equals the amount fixed from the atmosphere while the plants grow. These fuels provide an alternative to the current outrageous usage rate of fossil fuels. Plant biomass, a renewable and abundantly available natural resource, is used as the main source for bioethanol production.

In order to produce bioethanol, polymeric plant carbohydrates (polysaccharides) must be broken down into the corresponding monosaccharides, followed by fermentation via yeasts. Typically, starch-rich crops such as corn and sugarcane are the most heavily used as carbohydrate sources.

However, since utilization of these starchy sugars in bioethanol production competes with their use as food crops, there has been a recent shift towards utilization of lignocellulosic biomass.1 Lignocellulosic biomass includes cellulose and hemicelluloses present in non-edible parts of plants, and hence reduces dependence on edible, starch-rich crops.


Figure 1. Structure of a plant cell wall, highlighting xyloglucan, a particular hemicellulose of interest. [2]

Lignocelluloses form an important part of the plant cell wall (Figure 1) and are composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses (such as xyloglucan), and polyaromatics called lignin. These polymers are tough and more difficult to break down to release monosaccharides, as compared to starch. Nevertheless, lignocelluloses are the most abundant biological material on earth and are an untapped resource.1

The complete utilization of this biomass, however, is hindered by the structural complexity of plant cell walls, arising from the heavy crosslinking between hemicelluloses, celluloses, and lignin within, making it difficult to access the degradable polysaccharidic components. Hemicelluloses, such as xyloglucan (Figure 2A), can make up 15-50 % of these lignocellulosic materials and have been the focus of research for optimization to use as a biofuel.

To efficiently break down the lignocelluloses, many types of enzymes are needed. Glycoside hydrolases, one such group of carbohydrate active enzymes, have proven to be very efficient in the hydrolysis of many complex polysaccharides.3 However, more details about the chemical structure of the enzymes, as well as a reliable way of comparing the kinetic activity of various enzymes has been of interest to researchers in the field.

One of the ways of quantifying the kinetic details of such enzymes is by designing chemical probes such as one shown in Figure 2B. Such probes are chemically very similar in structure to the polysaccharide of interest (eg. Figure 2A), and hence can subtly fit into the active site of the enzyme and manipulate its rate of catalysis in a controlled and quantifiable way, making comparisons between enzymes’ kinetics possible.


Figure 2. Structures of (A) xyloglucan; and (B) xyloglucan oligosaccharide based probe.

These probes can also assist in the crystal structure formation of the enzyme providing key details about the nature of interactions between the enzyme and corresponding polysaccharide and the specific amino acids responsible for its catalytic activities (Figure 3).

The Brumer group at the University of British Columbia4 has recently designed one such probe (Figure 2B) specific for xyloglucan active enzymes (xyloglucanases) by chemically modifying a xyloglucan-derived heptasaccharide. This probe was able to provide valuable information about the kinetics, specificity, as well as structural details of a newly discovered xyloglucanase PbGH5, which is secreted by a microbe residing in the intestinal system of ruminants such as cows.


Figure 3. Crystal structure of the characterised endoxyloglucanase in complex with the inhibitor. [4]

As more research goes into the design and improvement of such probes, we would be able to develop novel enzyme cocktails that can make bioethanol production more economically and practically viable, leading to gradual decrease in our dependence on fossil fuels for our energy needs.



  1. Scheffran J. The Global Demand for Biofuels: Technologies, Markets and Policies. In: Biomass to Biofuels: Strategies for Global Industries. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.; 2010:27-54. doi:10.1002/9780470750025.ch2.
  3. Henrissat B, Davies G. Structural and sequence-based classification of glycoside hydrolases. Curr Opin Struct Biol. 1997;7(5):637-644. doi:
  4. McGregor N, Morar M, Fenger TH, et al. Structure-function analysis of a mixed-linkage β-glucanase/xyloglucanase from key ruminal Bacteroidetes Prevotella bryantii B14. J Biol Chem. 2015;291(3):1175-1197. doi:10.1074/jbc.M115.691659.

Greener Alternatives in Organic Synthesis Involving Carbonyl Groups: Dethioacetalization and Iron-Catalyzed Transfer Hydrogenation

By Diya Zhu, Member-at-Large for the GCI

A carbonyl functionality is a functional group composed of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom (C=O). It is ubiquitous in nature as well as widely employed and studied in all areas of chemistry. In this blog, we will explore two common synthetic processes involving carbonyl groups with greener alternative reagents.

Dethioacetalization with NH4I

Carbonyl-containing compounds are abundant in nature, expressing a wide range of functionality. As targeted in many natural and non-natural product syntheses, the protection and deprotection of the carbonyl functional groups are critical and often require multiple steps. Common carbonyl protecting groups are dithianes and dithiolanes due to their easy accessibility and high stability under acidic/basic conditions. The traditional dethioacetalization is generally performed utilizing heavy-metal salts such as mercury(II) chloride, silver(II) nitrite, ceric ammonium nitrate, and selenium dioxide, of which the resulting waste is very toxic to the environment.1

From 1989 to 2005, serval hypervalent iodine compounds such as bis(trifluoroacetoxy)-iodobenzene (BTI), Dess-Martin periodinane (DMP), and o-iodoxybenzoic acid (IBX) have been employed as dethioacetalization reagents due to their low toxicity, high selectivity, and metal-ion free nature. While these reagents have a smaller environmental impact, they are still required in excess amount, which is economically wasteful.2, 3

Finally, in 2011, Ganguly and Mondal reported a mild, efficient, and greener dethioacetalization protocol using a catalytic amount of ammonium iodide with hydrogen peroxide.3 In this work, the deprotection was carried out with 10 mol% of nontoxic ammonium iodide and 30% hydrogen peroxide as the terminal oxidizer in an aqueous medium in the presence of sodium dodecylsulfate (SDS). This protocol (Figure 1) shows a high yield (>90%) deprotection of 1,3–dithianes and dithiolanes of activated aromatics and even deactivated and sterically encumbered substrates. The high tolerance, low environmental impact, mildness, operational simplicity, high throughput, and generality of the protocol make it an intriguing alternative.


The greener dethioacetalization protocol by Ganguly and Mondal. [3]

Iron-catalyzed transfer hydrogenation with formic acid

Various catalyst systems for the reduction of carbonyl compounds have been established, such as Meerwein–Ponndorf–Verley (MPV) reduction.4 However, only a handful of protocols were reported for the transfer hydrogenation of aldehydes due to the difficulty in controlling the chemoselectivity in the process.

In these conversional protocols of transfer hydrogenation, many side-reactions (for example, aldol condensations) take place after deprotection by the base. The heavy-metal catalysts (such as rhodium, iridium, and ruthenium complexes) are expensive and often poisoned by the substrates, resulting in non-recyclable catalysts and many side-products. In addition, the hydrogenation of carbon-carbon double bonds (C=C) and aldehydes compete, resulting in poor chemoselectivity.5,6 Due to these drawbacks, there was a significant desire for more efficient and environmentally benign catalytic systems.

In the last decade, iron catalysts have received much attention due to their nontoxic, abundant, and inexpensive qualities. In 2013, Beller and his colleagues published an efficient iron-based catalyst system for the highly selective transfer hydrogenation of aldehydes under mild conditions.6 In this system, they suggested that iron-tetraphos complexes [(Fe(BF4)•6H2O and P(CH2CH2PPh2)3) are able to catalyze a wide range of substrates such as aromatic, aliphatic, and α,β-unsaturated aldehydes to the corresponding alcohols in excellent yields (>99%). Without the presence of a base, formic acid is used as a cheap, environmental friendly, and easy to handle hydrogen source. In addition, no significant amounts of side products were observed.


The iron-catalyzed transfer hydrogenation with formic acid. [6]

In addition to these two examples, many chemical companies promote the idea of green chemistry and offer more green choices to reduce environmental impact without compromising the quality and efficacy of research.7



  1. J. Corey, B. W. Erickson, Journal of Organic Chemistry 36 (1971), 3553; E. Vedejs, P. L. Fuches, Journal of Organic Chemistry 36 (1971), 366.
  2. S. Kirshnaveni, K. Surendra, Y. V. D. Nageswar, K. R. Rao, Synthesis 15 (2003), 2295. DOI: 10.1055/s-2003-41055
  3. C. Ganguly, P. Mondal, Synthetic Communications 41 (2011), 2374. DOI: 10.1080/00397911.2010.502995
  4. Gladiali, E. Alberico, Chemistry Society Reviews 35 (2006) 226. DOI: 10.1039/B513396C
  5. S. M. Samec, J.-E. Bäckvall, P. G. Andersson, P. Brandt, Chemistry Society Reviews 35 (2006), 237. DOI: 10.1039/b515269k
  6. Wienhöfer, F. A. Westerhaus, K. Junge, M. Beller, Journal of Organometallic Chemistry 744 (2013) 156. DOI: 10.1016/j.jorganchem.2013.06.010
  7. Sigma Aldrich Alternative Product Page. (accessed Oct 15, 2017).

Green Chemistry at CSC2017 – The 100th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition

By Kevin Szkop and Alex Waked

This year, the GCI partnered with the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), the organizing body of the CSC2017, to be closely involved in various aspects of Canada’s largest chemistry meeting.

In collaboration with GreenCentre Canada and CIC, the GCI organized a Professional Development Workshop as part of the CSC2017 program. This event consisted of four components:

The green chemistry crash course, led by Dr. Laura Reyes. Laura is a founding member of the GCI, and is now working in marketing & communications with GreenCentre Canada.

A case study, led by Dr. Tim Clark, Technology Leader at GreenCentre Canada. The case study gave attendees a unique opportunity to learn about some projects that GreenCentre has been developing and in collaboration with peers, learn how to find applications for new intellectual property (IP) and how to make contacts within relevant companies.

Kevin CSC blog 1

Dr. Tim Clark leading the GreenCentre Canada Industry Case Study

Career panel discussion, sponsored by Gilead, featuring members of academia and industry.

A coffee mixer for an opportunity for informal networking.


Supplementary to the Professional Development Workshop, the GCI organized a technical session, co-hosted by the Inorganic, Environmental, and Industrial sections of the conference. This new symposium, entitled “Recent Advances in Sustainable Chemistry”, brought together students, professors, industry, and government speakers to showcase a diverse and engaging collection of new trends in green and sustainable chemistry practices across all sectors of chemistry. Highlighted talks included Dr. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham, also a CSC2017 Plenary Lecturer, Dr. David Bergbreiter from Texas A&M University, and Dr. William Tolman from the University of Minnesota.

Kevin CSC blog 2

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff teaching the audience about NbOPO4 acid catalysts found in Brazilian mines

Dr. Bergbreiter’s lecture was an engaging one. His enthusiastic approach to the use of renewable and bio-derived polymers as green solvents was captivating to both industrial and academic chemists.

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, a plenary speaker at the conference, gave a phenomenal talk during the first day of the symposium. His charismatic style complimented perfectly the cutting-edge research ongoing in his group at the University of Nottingham. Particularly interesting was the use of flow processes in tandem with photochemistry to yield large quantities of natural products useful in the drug industries.

Dr. Tolman’s talk was of interest to essentially anyone working in an academic environment, especially for student run groups, like the GCI, with both academic interests as well as safety awareness initiatives. In the first part of the talk, synthetic and mechanistic studies of renewable polymers were discussed. The second part shifted focus to student-led efforts to enhance the safety culture in academic labs, which stood out from most of the other talks in our symposium.

One highlight was a group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota organizing a tour of Dow Chemicals to observe the work and safety codes in an industrial setting, which they used as a lesson to bring back to their own research labs. This caught the eye of most of the GCI members, which inspired us to organize a similar day trip in the future.

In further efforts to make our symposium accessible to undergraduate and graduate students, the GCI partnered with GreenCentre Canada to award five Travel Scholarships to deserving students from across Canada to provide financial aid to participate in the conference.

We thank all of our speakers, both national and international, for their participation in the program. It was a great success!


Green Chemistry Principle #8: Reduce Derivatives

By Trevor Janes, Member-at-Large for the GCI

8. Unnecessary derivatization (e.g. installation/removal of use protecting groups) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

In Video #8, Cynthia and Devon look at one common example of derivatization, which is the use of protecting groups in chemical reactions. To help illustrate the concept of a protecting group, they use toy building blocks.

In this blog post, I will use cartoons such as the one shown below (a specific example of the use of protecting groups will be shown at the end of this post).

Principle 8 - unselective reaction

Figure 1 An unselective reaction.

In Figure 1, the starting material contains two reactive sites, represented by U-shaped slots. We only want the slot on the right to react with the reagent, shown as red circles. The starting material is reacted with the reagent in order to make the desired product, but an undesired product also forms, because both U-shaped slots react with the red circle. In other words, Figure 1 shows an unselective reaction because a mixture of products is made.

Formation of the undesired product can be avoided by carrying out a protection reaction before using the red reagent, and then carrying out a final deprotection reaction. This sequence of reactions is shown in Figure 2.

Principle 8 - selectivity through protecting groups

Figure 2 A selective reaction through the use of a protecting group, which temporarily blocks the reactive site on the left side. 


Figure 2 shows how a selective reaction is traditionally done – through the use of a temporary block, known as a protecting group. The starting material can be protected by blocking one of the reactive sites, represented by the blue rectangle covering the U-shaped slot on the left. This intermediate only has one reactive site left, so the second reaction with the red reagent can only happen at the empty U-shaped slot on the right. To get the same desired product as in Figure 1, the third and final deprotection step is carried out, which removes the protecting group.

Principle 8 - waste from protecting groups

Figure 3 The waste created by all three reactions in Figure 2.

Even though the product from Figure 2 is the desired product, we had to do three reactions to only make one change, which is inefficient. Also, each step generates waste products (shown underneath each reaction arrow in the above cartoon) , which are depicted in Figure 3.

Protecting groups are a useful tool that chemists use to make the molecules, because we often need to carry out selective reactions on a molecule that has multiple of the same reactive sites. However, as we have talked about here, they are also inefficient and wasteful.

An active area of research is the development of more selective reactions, which eliminate the need to use protecting groups altogether.[1] Selective reactions use slight differences in a molecule’s chemistry to make a reaction happen at only the desired reactive site. This is very similar to the installation of the protecting group in Figure 2.

As more and more highly selective reactions are discovered, our syntheses can be made more efficient by reducing the number of steps required and the amount of waste produced. Looking ahead, protecting groups will be less and less necessary – and that’s a good thing!


Appendix – Example from Real Chemistry

A simple, specific example of the use of protecting groups[2] is shown below. Both oxygen-containing sites are reactive, but we only want the one on the left side to react in this case. The first reaction is the installation of the protecting group, (CH3)3SiCl, on the OH oxygen only, protecting the right side. The second reaction shows the reagent, CH3CH2CH2MgBr (for those curious, this is called a Grignard Reagent), which now reacts with just the ketone C=O site on the left, adding the desired new CH3CH2CH2 segment. The last step shows a combination of removing the protecting group to return the OH group, and also removing the [MgBr] segment of the reagent with the help of acid (shown as H3O+), which leaves the desired product with a CH3CH2CH2 chain added only on one side of the molecule.

Principle 8 - real protecting group use in chemistry

This example of a selective reaction uses a protecting group, but this requires 3 steps to only make 1 change. Instead, we can eliminate the need for protecting groups by designing new and more selective reactions that are much more efficient.


[1] I. S. Young and P. S. Baran, Nature Chem. 2009, 1, 193

[2] R. J. Ouellette and J. D. Rawn, in Organic Chemistry, 2014, Elsevier, Boston pp 491-534.

All Wrapped Up – Catalyst-Containing Wax Capsules Instead of Glove Boxes

All Wrapped Up – Catalyst-Containing Wax Capsules Instead of Glove Boxes

By Kevin Szkop, Symposium Coordinator for the GCI

What if you could do air-sensitive chemistry without a glove box or Schlenk line?

This is the idea behind the company XiMo, launched by Amir Hoveyda from Boston College, Richard Schrock from MIT and their co-workers.

Schrock, Hoveyda and many others work in the area of making carbon-carbon bonds.  The carbon-carbon bond is ubiquitous in nature, found in (nearly) every organic and naturally occurring molecule. The complexity of design that can be obtained from a seemingly simple chemical bond is unparalleled. The formation of carbon-carbon bonds is very important in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, food and natural products, agricultural chemicals, materials, and more. Notably, synthetic organic and inorganic chemists work together to design catalysts that are able to carry out this priceless transformation.

There have been many advances in this regard, especially in the field of coupling reactions and bond metathesis (the swapping of partners by a re-distribution of alkene and alkyne groups), both endeavours earning their discoverers Nobel prizes.1,2 However, a shortcoming in this field is the air- and moisture-sensitivity of the catalysts that need to be used for these transformations. The typical way of overcoming this problem is through the use of a glove box.


Typical glove box used to protect air- and moisture-sensitive materials.

A glove box is an essential piece of laboratory equipment to the synthetic chemist. By providing an air- and moisture-free environment, sensitive chemistry can easily be performed.
While useful, glove boxes are expensive to buy and operate, require a lot of inert gas (argon or nitrogen) to maintain a clean and dry working atmosphere, and a lot of upkeep is needed to maintain their successful operation.


In efforts to address these issues, Amir Hoyveda from Boston College, Richard Schrock from MIT, and coworkers have launched the company XiMo3, which manufactures paraffin tablets containing air and moisture sensitive materials. Using less rigorous techniques for the exclusion of air and moisture from the reaction vessel than a glove box, the organic chemist can simply add the tablet to the desired reaction. The tablets will release their contents in the reaction solvent under mild heating conditions. Therefore, even though precautions must be taken, the overall process eliminates the need for a glove box.4


Paraffin wax tablet

Many different factors affect the integrity of the paraffin wax tablets. The active compound must be able to dissolve in the reaction medium and release its contents under desirable conditions, it must be air- and water-stable, and the active compounds must be homogeneously dispersed within the volume of the tablet, but not on the surface. These problems have all been overcome since the company’s founding in 2005.

Some of the commercially available catalysts (shown below) are widely used in metathesis reactions for the construction of complex molecular carbon backbones.5,6,7 These reagents have been successfully incorporated into a paraffin tablet and show equivalent activity in selected reactions compared to the traditional catalyst in reactions performed under air- and moisture-free conditions.



Typical metathesis catalysts embedded in paraffin wax tablets.

The company’s founders hope that this new technology will speed up research and development endeavours, particularly in the field of drug synthesis. Bypassing the need for a glovebox, the paraffin tablets will allow a wide range of organic chemists to explore the rich chemistry obtainable by these air sensitive catalysts.



  3. XiMo Technologies:
  4. Chemistry World News, Oct. 2016:
  5. Koh, M.-J.; Nguyen, T. T.; Zhang, H.; Schrock, R. R.; Hoveyda, A. H.Nature2016, 531,
  6. Lam, C. Zhu, K. V. Bukhryakov, P. Müller, A. H. Hoveyda, R. R. SchrockJ. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 15774.
  7. T. Nguyen, M. J. Koh, X. Shen, F. Romiti, R. R. Schrock, A. H. HoveydaScience, 2016, 352, 569.


Green Polymer Chemistry: Approaches, Challenges, Opportunity

Green Polymer Chemistry: Approaches, Challenges, Opportunity

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


Figure 1. Engineered metabolic pathway to produce styrene from glucose. (1)

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.


Figure 2. Conventional monomers (styrene, methylmethacrylate, ethylene) and their potentially renewable counterparts. Renewable counterpart monomers tend to be structural analogues of conventional monomers.

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., 201447 (8), pp 2390–2396

(3)   Mckenna, R.; Nielsen, D. R. Metab. Eng. 2011, 13 (5), 544–554.