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Israeli Prof. Develops Catalysts for Biodegradable Plastics

Sugar cane (USDA.gov)

Sugar cane (USDA.gov)

Moshe Kol, professor chemistry at Tel Aviv University in Israel, is developing new processes using corn starch and sugar to make biodegradable plastics more competitive in the industry. Kol’s approach involves a new variety of catalysts, substances that initiate or sustain chemical reactions in other substances.

Kol’s team in Tel Aviv is working with collaborators at universities in the U.K. and Germany. The partners are working on polylactic acid or PLA, a biodegradable plastic made from renewable plant sources such as corn, wheat, or sugar cane that’s already used in bottles, bags, and film, and can even be woven into clothes.

The new catalysts enable the polymerization of lactide, which is the building block of a corn-based plastic. Kol’s catalysts can be used more safely and efficiently, making “green” plastics more commercially feasible than conventional catalysts that have limited control of the way in which the corn-based molecules are assembled.

Early results of Kol’s research suggest plastics that he and his team produce in the lab look and feel like polystyrene, with the rigidity and transparency for making items such as drinking cups. So far, however, the drinking cups only work for liquids under 122 degrees F, but Kol believes they represent a first step for sustainable plastics in the industry.

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