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As we begin to see the devastating effects of plastic pollution on our environment, scientists are working towards generating more eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based materials. Chuanbing Tang from the University of South Carolina is looking to the noble conifer to provide the key to biodegradable, renewable plastics. His research group has been altering the natural resins of firs, pines, and other evergreens through polymerization to create compounds that are more sustainable than fossil fuel-derived plastics.
Evergreen sap is rich in hydrocarbons, and the turpentine and rosins found in the trees are similar in composition to petroleum. Through polymerization, they can be altered chemically to become biodegradable versions of common plastics. While renewable bases for plastics are currently inferior in performance to petroleum, Tang’s laboratory just received the National Science Foundation CAREER award to further investigate and refine the chemistry to make them viable competitors. Together with Perry Wilbon, and Fuxiang Chu of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, Tang published his review of terpenes, terpenoids, and rosin in the January edition of Macromolecular Rapid Communications.
“The aim is to understand how the macromolecular compositions and architectures dictate the properties of the materials we make,” he said. “If we can establish clear structure-property relationships, we will be able to achieve the kinds of results we now get from polymers made from petroleum.”
According to his research, molecules derived from trees are good sources of cycloaliphatic and aromatic structures which are good for polymerization. With rigid molecular structures and a dislike for water, they could become very good candidates for a whole host of new plastics. Coming from biological sources, they are also able to be recognized and broken down by microbes at the end of their life cycle.