A Colorado State University (CSU) chemistry professor has
developed several patent-pending chemical processes that would create
sustainable bioplastics from renewable resources for use on everything from
optical fibers and contact lenses to furniture and automobile parts.
Chemistry Professor Eugene Chen and his co-workers have
invented a platform of processes to convert small molecules derived from
nonedible plant biomass to bioplastics. The molecules can be transformed into
different materials depending on the catalyst that is added to them. That
catalyst can either be an organic compound or a metal-based compound.
Two related studies were published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
Assisting with patent
Officials with CSU Ventures, the university’s technology transfer arm, are
optimistic about the commercial potential of this work and have filed several
provisional patent applications on Chen’s processes.
“Each year, the U.S. alone manufactures almost 90
billion pounds of synthetic plastics derived predominantly from fossil fuels,
which are not renewable,” Chen said. “There’s a great deal of concern to
develop sustainable polymers or materials that can displace those petrochemical
polymers. There’s huge interest in academia and industry, so the largest
companies such as Dow Chemical, Dupont, and BASF are pursuing sustainable
chemical feedstocks to make materials.”
The organic process Chen created could be used to produce
commodity plastics for everyday uses such as artificial glass, dental resins,
automobile parts, and furniture. His metal-based process would be used to
produce high-performance engineering plastic materials that have superb
mechanical and physical properties.
Chen has found in his laboratory that commercially available
organic catalysts applied to small molecules derived from plant biomass are
very active and efficient—the reaction achieves completion within a minute—and
non-toxic. He also has developed a metal-based catalyst system that produces “stereoregular” polymers that exhibit superior physical and mechanical
properties, meaning they’re very robust and more resistant to such factors as
temperature, liquids, chemicals, and scratches.
Plastic optical fibers, for example, must sustain exposure to the elements
and still perform at a high level so they don’t interrupt telecommunications
“These materials require high resistance to extreme
conditions including high temperature and unexpected environmental invasion,”
Chen has done previous research showing that dissolving
plant biomass in “green” solvent ionic liquids—salts that melt at low
temperatures—converts more sugars needed for biofuel more quickly than
traditional methods. The discovery was an important step in the move toward the
use of nonedible plant biomass as an alternative source for fuel. Most
recently, Chen’s laboratory has filed a provisional patent for a new catalytic
process in ionic liquids to convert plant biomass to platform chemicals.