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Saudi, IBM eye new plastics recycling technology

Los Angeles, March 9, 2010

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) is planning to build a pilot plastics recycling plant together with IBM, a report said.

The plant will use a new line of organic catalysts, the discovery of which was announced recently by IBM’s Almaden Research Center and Stanford University.

The catalysts can break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) -- the plastic found in milk bottles, polyester and many other consumer and industrial goods -- into its starting components, and rebuild it as a whole new range of plastics, said the report in earth2tech website.

“We can apply this and rip polymers, which otherwise would have gone into a landfill, back into polymer-grade monomers,” Jim Hedrick, IBM’s lead scientist was quoted as saying by the website.

Monomers are the starting components of plastics, mostly petrochemical-based. Polymers are the PET, PVC, polystyrene and other forms of plastic.

The IBM/Stanford work on organic catalysts is aimed at replacing, or augmenting, a line of metal oxide or metal hydroxide catalysts now used in a step of the polymer-making process known as ring-opening polymerization. These traditional organometallic catalysts work well for this, but can leave heavy metals behind that have to be removed or left as contaminants in the plastic. Being able to make plastic without nasty heavy metal residue also opens up medical uses for the research, Hedrick said.

Plastic recycling is another angle to the discovery, Hedrick said. If the new organic catalysts can polymerize, or put plastics together, they can also de-polymerize, or take them apart. Not only that, but they can do it at room temperature -- today’s chemical plastic recycling methods need high temperatures, and thus energy, making them cost-prohibitive in most cases.

The work in Saudi Arabia is aimed at reducing PET to its starting materials in this low-energy manner, he said. It could also be designed to yield other materials that might have higher value than PET and be harder to make, he said.

Tags: IBM | Recycling | plastics | PET | KACST |

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