IBM & Stanford pioneer new non-toxic biodegradable plastic technique

10 October 2016 2 min. read

IBM and Stanford University’s Department of Chemistry have been collaborating to develop a sustainable, and cheap, biodegradable plastic. The collaboration, which leverages IBM’s cognitive computing capability, recently bore fruit, with the development of a non-toxic catalytic process that converts plant material into useful plastics – potentially heralding a new era in which plastics can biodegrade in a non-environmentally harmful manner.

The usefulness of plastic in a range of circumstances, from carrying goods to protecting products, is reflected in its heavy use; plastic is relatively cost effective, assuming externalities are not factored into the price. The large scale use of plastic, and cradle to the grave economic model it serves, are creating problems within the natural environment – with waste, some of which is toxic or harmful, piling up. One of the problems with the material is that it takes centuries to biodegrade, and, in many instances, becomes toxic in new ways when it breaks up the smaller and smaller particles.

While plastic recycling and new forms of consumption are on the cards, creating plastics that biodegrade in non-toxic ways, has become a priority for innovative companies seeking to make their fortune or create a social good. As it stands, while biodegradable plastics – made from plant fibres – do exist, the process of creating the plastic uses heavy metals that are themselves environmental toxins which do not break down.

IBM and Stanford - Plastic recycling

To find a new form of biodegradable plastic, Stanford University’s Department of Chemistry and IBM, partly funded by the National Science Foundation, have been collaborating on the development of a process that turns plants into sustainable – and safely biodegradable plastics. 

The new plastics, which can be used to make items from eating utensils to medical devices, uses a cheap and biodegradable catalyst. Through the process plant material can be converted, in relatively low temperatures, to the new plastics without the previous risk of leaving behind heavy metal residues. One of the benefits from the new technology, according to Gavin O. Jones, computational chemist at IBM Research, are in “Making biodegradable plastics mainstream [which] means less impact on our solid waste systems.”

The new development is partly derived from the combination of materials science research with IBM’s AI based cognitive systems. Xiangyi Zhang, a graduate student working with Robert Waymouth from the Department of Chemistry, Stanford University, remarks, “In this study, we used a combination of predictive modelling and experimental lab work to make the discovery. This tag-team approach takes a lot of the guess work out of the process and helps us accelerate the materials discovery process.” The new research is published in Nature Chemistry.

IBM has been busy working in the field of plastics, the firm also recently developed a process for recycle polycarbonates into nontoxic plastic.