Include key green chemistry ideas when covering polymer science.

Posted by Wim Thielemans, Sep 28, 2011

A recent article in Chemical & Engineering News leaves out key points reporters should include when explaining the pitfalls for new polymers vying for market share.

A cover story in Chemical & Engineering News describes a variety of new polymers – commonly called plastics – that are vying for current market share in a crowded field. Author Alexander H. Tullo focuses on how companies are avoiding the pitfalls of previous attempts to break into markets dominated by the long-used polymers – such as polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon – that were developed prior to 1960.

The long article covers a lot of ground but misses some important aspects of materials science and green chemistry, which should also be considered.

Tullo expertly describes a variety of polymers with varying chemical properties. He clearly states the market potential of these polymers, emphasizing their improved properties. While this is obviously important, cost  – especially for bulk polymer applications – is not mentioned. Many new polymers tend to be more expensive than those currently used. Existing polymers tend to be cheaper because of economies of scale – larger volumes are cheaper to produce. Yet, producing large amounts at a reasonable price is a major hurdle for new polymers in trying to find inroads to these low-cost and high-volume applications.

The author did not specifically mention which markets would be the most receptive to the new polymers. Yet, the examples clearly show that niche, high-value and new-technology applications present the most important inroads. This is especially true where existing polymers do not do a perfect job and improvement is easily achieved.

Some final hints may help journalists to collect and report more detailed information on the environmental impact of materials. As an example, the environmental benefit of the Novomer polymer mentioned in the article is extraordinary. It is a real feat to make a polymer with 40 percent of its total weight derived from carbon dioxide (CO2), which is removed from the atmosphere to make the polymer.

Reporters, though, need to dig deeper and ask about key points to help readers better understand a product’s overall impact. For example, if a point is made about removing CO2 from the atmosphere, ask how much material needs to be made to sequester the CO2 from a single power plant’s emissions, whether there is a market for all the material and whether the chemical reaction to make the polymer could cope with the quantities and required reaction rates to keep up with CO2 supply.

If environmental benefits are mentioned, ask for life cycle analysis results. Life cycle analyses describe the start-to-finish environmental effects from making a material to disposing of the finished product. The analysis results will make it clear if a real environmental benefit exists. Also, ask whether the preparation of the material conforms to the Principles of Green Chemistry. In the case of the Novomer polymer, the use of ethylene oxide – a well-known neurotoxin – in the polymer preparation would certainly raise questions about its environmental credentials.

The article is very interesting and an enjoyable read, but is at times rather narrowly focused. I would have liked the author to more broadly question the reasons why new polymers have such a difficult time entering and expanding into the marketplace.

Read more science at Environmental Health News.