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"Re-Makable" -- The Discovery Files

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In recent years, environmentally friendly materials to replace plastics have become a focus for chemists, and the discovery of a new polymer by Colorado State University could be just what they've been looking for. The material has the same characteristics of plastics that we enjoy -- for example, light weight, heat resistance and durability -- but it can be converted back to a small-molecule state for complete chemical recyclability.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Not so -- plastic.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

In the future, it's likely that the items we now make out of plastic will be made of a polymer that's a lot more environmentally friendly. Chemists at Colorado State University have taken another major step toward waste-free, sustainable materials that have the desirable qualities of conventional plastics, but are completely and infinitely recyclable.

The team previously demonstrated a chemically recyclable polymer in 2015, but it wasn't practical for industrial use. The current material they've developed fixes that. It looks and acts like typical plastic, but can be easily taken back to its chemical starting point, to be used over and over. Can't do that with conventional plastics. The material has a constant life cycle -- polymer to monomer and back to polymer -- without the use of toxic chemicals or intensive lab procedures and no hanging around in landfills for the next 500 years.

There is still work being done to perfect the material and the process the team has come up with. Things like scalability and cost-effectiveness. But they've got a patent pending and hope someday to bring it into general use in a variety of applications.

Creating an infinite life cycle for the materials we use. You know, "ashes to ashes, polymer to monomer" (Sound effect: fading out as spoken) to polymer to monomer, to polymer to monomer.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.

 
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