Plastics

Ashlee Jahnke, Class of 2008, has been a part of the biodegradable plastics research team since 2016.

Researchers in Texas A&M’s Department of Chemistry are developing a biodegradable plastic substitute to help reduce plastic pollution.

According to Texas A&M Today, the multidisciplinary research team headed by chemist Karen Wooley has been working on this particular project for about 10 years.

The team at A&M has also paired up with Teysha Technologies, a company that aims to reduce plastic pollution through technological and scientific solutions. According to the Teysha website, the company is paired with many research groups around the globe. The main goal of these teams, including the department at A&M, is to create and commercialize a sustainable biodegradable polymer with the durability of plastic that is environmentally friendly. In theory, this product could reduce large amounts of pollution, especially in the ocean.

Peter Hai Wang, assistant research scientist for Wooley’s team, said while recycling is important, it won’t be enough to slow down the effects of pollution in the world because the current system is not efficient. There are many kinds of plastic which require different processes to be recycled or reused.

“These current products have a lot of additives, and there are different types of plastics, so the way we recycle them is not efficient,” Wand said. “When you have a product of that value, it doesn’t really drive the effort to recycle.”

Ashlee Jahnke, Class of 2008, has been an assistant research scientist for Wooley’s team since 2016. She said the statistics on plastic pollution are shocking and could possibly become much worse if nothing is done about it.

“Plastic waste is just an enormous problem,” Jahnke said. “We’re putting ten million metric tons of plastic into our oceans every year. It’s actually predicted at our current rate that by 2050, plastics are going to outweigh fish in the ocean.”

Jahnke said their team aims to reduce plastic waste in the ocean with its product.

“Degradable plastics, our materials for example, will break down in the ocean, back to the same natural products we built them out of,” Jahnke said. “So they won’t be environmentally harmful.”

Although this field of science has many helpful perspectives from other research teams, Jahnke said the properties of other new biodegradable plastics have a tendency to limit their applications. Wooley’s team is unique in that it has developed multiple polymers that can be used for different types of products.

“We don’t make a single polymer,” Jahnke said. “We have a plug-and-play platform where, based on two small families of monomers and how we formulate things, we can change the thermal and mechanical properties of the polymers to meet a wide range of applications.”

There have been many different projects pertaining to a biodegradable plastic substitute in the past, Wang said, but the team at A&M is applying their new materials in a more financially accessible way.

“I have worked on different platforms,” Wang said. “Majorly, their application was biomedical. The current project is totally a different target, like making this material cheap so people can afford it, as opposed to having a good material that’s super expensive and people won’t be able to use.”

In addition to decreasing the cost of the materials, Jahnke said the team is aiming to include more natural substances in its product.

“In the last year or so, we’ve been focused on bringing the cost of the chemistry down, as well as increasing the natural content of the polymer system,” Jahnke said. “There were some pieces that were petroleum-derived that we’ve still been using, and we’re making the switch over to materials that can be naturally and renewably sourced.”

Recently, Wooley’s team has taken a step forward and is working on a pilot scale to commercialize their materials. Jahnke said they are currently working with L’Oréal cosmetic company. This partnership arose with new regulations from the European Union regarding degradability of certain products.

“We have a nondisclosure and a material transfer agreement in place with [L’Oréal] for them to start doing some biodegradation tests under their conditions,” Jahnke said.

Wang said the convenience of plastic as a material does not outweigh its detrimental effects on the environment, so it is important to do something about it now.

“Although plastic is a super great material, and you can find them all over, we do face the problem that it cannot biodegrade,” Wang said. “It impacts the environment and our lives as well.”

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