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Highlights in Chemical Science

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Plastic made from castor oil


21 August 2009

A chemical route to prepare polyester from a renewable resource has been developed by scientists in Germany.

Currently most plastics are prepared using fossil fuel feedstocks, but with an ever increasing demand for fossil fuels, alternative routes using renewable resources are desirable. Stefan Mecking and Dorothee Quinzler from the University of Konstanz have developed a carbonylation polymerisation route to make the polyester poly(dodecyloate) from biomass sourced undecenol.  

Plastic from plant oil

Plastic can be prepared from plant oil using a CO catalyst

Undecenol can be obtained via two high conversion steps from ricinoleic acid, which is found naturally as the major component in castor oil. Castor oil is a readily available resource and unlike some other biomass sources there is not much competition for its use as a food source.  By exposing the obtained undecenol to CO pressure at high temperature (~160 C), in the presence of a cobalt/pyridine catalyst, Mecking was able to produce poly(dodecyloate) with high molecular weight.  

Unlike other routes to make plastics from renewable resources, Mecking and Quinzler's route does not involve a fermentation step. 'In order to largely conserve the molecular structure of the plant oil substrate in the final plastics product, entirely chemical syntheses are advantageous by comparison to fermentation steps,' explains Mecking.  

Michael Meier, an expert in the sustainable use of renewable resources for the polymer industry from the University of Potsdam, Germany, comments that 'petroleum supplies will not last forever and it is chemists who have to come up with new and sustainable solutions now. They have nicely demonstrated a new route to 100% renewable polyesters.'

Mecking plans to continue to optimise this work. 'We are currently working on increasing the efficiency of feedstock utilization and broadening the scope of applicable feedstocks,' he says, 'also, knowledge of materials properties relevant to applications is a key issue.' 

Alexandra Haywood

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Link to journal article

Renewable resource-based poly(dodecyloate) by carbonylation polymerization
Dorothee Quinzler and Stefan Mecking,Chem. Commun., 2009, 5400
DOI: 10.1039/b912294j

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