Durable Plastic Can Be Environmentally Friendly, Too

When many research efforts are trying to find ways to make plastic more biodegradable, researchers in Israel are finding ways to make plastic super-hard. These new plastics could replace steel, be produced less expensively, and help the environment.

Prof. Moshe Kol of Tel Aviv University’s School of Chemistry is developing super-strength polypropylene — one of the most commonly used plastics — that could potentially replace steel and other materials in everyday use, reports e! Science News. The development could have an impact on many industries, such as car manufacturing, in which plastic parts would replace metallic ones.

It takes less energy to produce durable plastics than steel. In cars, plastic parts would make the vehicles lighter than those with steel parts, thereby consuming less fuel. Because the material is cheap, plastic parts would be more affordable for the manufacturer.

The key to Kol’s development is a chemical catalyst. “Everyone is using the same building blocks, so the key is to use different machinery,” he explains. With their catalyst, the researchers have produced the most “regular” polypropylene ever made, reaching the highest melting point to date.

The consumption of plastics is estimated to reach 200 million tons a year by 2020. It’s important to think creatively to come up with a useful plastic that will have the smallest environmental impact, Kol says. Plastics will need to be cheaper, more efficient, and produced with little energy consumption, as well as being non-toxic. He believes his development will help meet those needs.

plastic pipe

In addition to being a substitute for car parts, Kol’s durable plastic could be used for water pipes, which will ultimately conserve water use. Drinking water has traditionally been carried by steel and cement pipes. These pipes are susceptible to leakage, causing waste and higher water bills. Also, they are heavy, so replacing them can be a major, expensive operation.

Kol says:

Plastic pipes require far fewer raw materials, weighing ten times less than steel and a hundred times less than cement. Reduced leaking means more efficient water use and better water quality.

Steel water pipes are being replaced more often with plastic ones. Plastic pipes with greater strength and durability will make this transition more environmentally friendly, he says. Kol published his research in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Source: “Steel-strength Plastics — And Green, Too!e! Science News, 6/7/12
Image by Arnulf zu Linden, used under its Creative Commons license.