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Airdate: Mar 15, 2017
Scientist: Tim Long

Microplastics - Solutions

Microplastics - Solutions
Can we develop bio-friendly polymers?

Microplastics Solutions

Plastic bags and packaging are finding their way into the world's oceans and waterways, breaking down into tiny particles microplastics, that are being eaten by fish and other organisms. Scientists are searching for ways to try and solve this problem. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

Long: Can we develop polymers that are more bio-friendly? Can we develop those polymers in an economic way, with the same properties that consumers already expect? The answer to that is yes.

Tim Long is a professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech.

Long: Polyethylene, polypropylene, PET, these are all the recycling codes that we use today, are not designed to degrade rapidly in sea water. What if we could make a polymer that when exposed to sea water, salt concentrations, systematically changed very rapidly into inert bi-products? Those are the things that people are working on, and I think once the community of oceanographers get together with the community of polymer scientists, we're going to see an exponential change in solutions for the future. So what's happening? What are the possibilities? We're designing new polymers based on bio-feedstocks.
Soy beans provide oils, they provide proteins and those molecules, many, many decades ago, nearly 100 years ago - were used to make cars. We since got away from that, right? We developed new materials that were stronger and safer and lighter and gave us better fuel economy, but could we come back to those bio-based feedstocks, things like soy bean oil, things like soy protein, carbohydrates, cellulosics, sugars, lipids, fats? Could we use those molecules in more ingenious ways, more creative ways - and develop materials that are equally as high performing as the materials today based on petroleum sources?

Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology and the National Science Foundation.