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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Double Duty Plastic?

Air Date: Week of

Meghan Vigeant reports on a vegetable oil-based plastic that can be converted to biofuel.


VIGEANT: Scratching your head about what alternative fuel could go into your gas tank? What if there was a fuel you could use twice? Richard Gross, a chemist at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, has developed a plastic that can easily be converted to fuel. The plastic is made from vegetable oil, the same stuff that makes biodiesel. But instead of going right to the fuel tank, Gross’s new substance can double as a Tupperware container first.

The fatty acids in vegetable oil are used to create the bio-plastic. Gross developed a process to convert the fatty acids into polymers, long chains of similar molecules, sort of like pearls on a necklace. And polymers are the main ingredient in plastic.

The conversion of plastic to fuel is then relatively low tech. All it takes is a shredder, warm water and an enzyme called cutinase. The enzyme breaks the polymers into separate pearls. And after a few days the plastic dissolves into liquid biodiesel.

The plastic isn’t commercially viable yet, but the potential to turn plastic trash into easy fuel has got the attention of the Pentagon. The average soldier generates seven pounds of plastic waste a day, including their notorious field rations, the plastic wrapped MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat. If they used bioplastic wrapping, these soldiers could each turn that trash into one gallon of fuel per day. Now there’s a plastic that does double duty.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Meghan Vigeant.



More about Richard Gross


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