Scientists Discover How to Make Renewable Plastic from Carbon Dioxide and Plants

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Scientists have recently discovered how to make plastic out of carbon dioxide and inedible plant material like agricultural waste and grasses. The research team said the new technology may be able to provide a low carbon alternative to plastic bottles and other things that are currently made from petroleum.

Study Results

Scientists at Stanford University found a way to make plastic from carbon dioxide and inedible plant material. The team says the new technology may provide a way for a low-carbon alternative to plastic bottles and other things that are made from petroleum right now.

Dr. Matthew Kanan, an assistant chemistry professor at Stanford says, “Our goal is to replace petroleum derived products with plastic made from CO2. If you could to that without using a lot of non-renewable energy, you dramatically lower the carbon footprint of the plastics industry.”

Kanan and his fellow colleagues described the results of this study in the March 9th, 2016 online edition of Nature.

Many of the plastics manufactured today are made from a polymer called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known as polyester. Worldwide, about 50 million tons of PETS are produced every year from items like recyclable beverage containers, fabrics, personal care products and electronics.

Polyethylene terephthalate is made from two components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. These substances are manufactured from refined petroleum and natural gas. Manufacturing PET means copious amounts of CO2 are produced and it is a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.
Kanan states, “The use of fossil-fuel feedstocks, combined with the energy required to manufacture PET, generates more than four tons of CO2 for every ton of PET that’s produced.”

For the study published in Nature, he and his team focused on a promising alternative to PET called polyethylene furandicarboxylic acid or PEF. PEF is made from ethylene glycol and a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA).

Dr. Kanan said, “PEF is an attractive replacement for PET, because FDCA can be sourced from biomass instead of petroleum. PEF is also superior to PET at sealing out oxygen, which is useful for bottling applications.”

Despite the many attributes of PEF, the plastics industry has yet to find a low-cost, environmentally friendly way to manufacture it at scale. The holdup has been to finding a commercially viable way to produce FDCA substantially.

One way is to make it from fructose that’s been converted to corn syrup. The Dutch firm, Avantium, has been developing technology in partnership with Coca Cola and other companies. However, growing crops for industry requires a lot of land mass, energy, water and fertilizer.

Kanan said, “Using fructose is problematic, because fructose production has a substantial carbon footprint, and, ultimately, you’ll be competing with food production. It would be much better to make FDCA from inedible biomass, like grasses or waste material left over from harvest.”


The approach of the Stanford team has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With time and more research it’s possible to make plastic manufacturing safer and most importantly, environmentally friendly.


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