KAUST’s green plastics are made using carbon dioxide (CO2) and raw materials from sustainable sources
HONG KONG SAR 30 October 2023 – King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and two Chinese companies operating in the plastics sector: Shandong Lianxin Environmental Protection Technology Co., Ltd. and Hangzhou Hecai Technology Co., Ltd. have agreed to develop environmentally friendly “green plastics” of high molar mass called aliphatic polycarbonates (PCs).
Shandong Lianxin Environmental Protection Technology Co., Ltd. envisions targeting the biomedical products and food packaging sectors for Gnanou-Feng’s Green Plastics. These applications prioritize biodegradability, low toxicity, and excellent biocompatibility characteristics.
Ibn Al-Aytham Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Yves Gnanou, Dr. Xiaoshuang Feng, and their research team at KAUST have developed an innovative method that allows them to create these polycarbonates without using toxic metals, which are typically used in the production of similar plastics. These polycarbonates are unique because they are made using carbon dioxide (CO2) and raw materials from sustainable sources.
The projected timescale is two years to full commercialization, with the next year spent building the facility and producing one ton of the material.
Dr. Feng explains that regular polycarbonates made with metal catalysts cannot be used in applications like food or medical products because of the metals they contain. However, their PC is free of metals and an excellent barrier to oxygen and moisture, making it the perfect plastic for packaging items that need to be protected from oxidation, and a top-quality material for high-end applications.
Further, since it includes up to 45% of CO2, their products actually help reduce carbon footprint when manufactured, which is great for the environment.
In early 2023, the two Chinese companies expressed interest in bringing KAUST’s polycarbonates to the market in a phased manner. In the initial phase, Hangzhou Hecai Technology Co., Ltd. will provide the facilities to scale the synthesis of polycarbonates up to 10kg using KAUST’s proprietary protocol. In the subsequent phase, Shandong Lianxin Environmental Protection Technology Co., Ltd. will leverage its extensive industrial capabilities to pilot the production of high molar mass polycarbonates, aiming for a 1-ton output before full-scale industrialization.
Professor Gnanou notes, “This represents the first instance where a comprehensive plan has been formulated for the industrialization of high molar mass aliphatic polycarbonates through a Joint Development Agreement, based on KAUST’s pioneering chemistry, which permits the synthesis of high molar mass polycarbonates.”
As a concept, Green Plastics has existed for nearly two decades, with several manufacturers already embracing the principles of green chemistry to develop recyclable plastics. While solutions involving bio-based or biodegradable plastics have emerged, only a handful have achieved industrial adoption.
Professor Gnanou comments, “I began contemplating biodegradable plastics several years ago, and I’m gratified that we’ve developed a material that can be completely converted into water and CO2 through enzymatic degradation at the end of its lifecycle. Our product won’t add to the environmental challenge.”