Researchers at Cornell University are developing an economical way to make polyester into plastic. Geoffrey Coates, a Cornell chemistry and chemical biology professor, discovered an efficient chemical route for the synthesis of the polymer, known as poly beta-hydroxybutyrate or PHB. PHB currently is produced through an expensive, energy-intensive biological process involving the fermentation of sugar. A less expensive production method is of interest because PHB acts much like polypropylene but is biodegradable.
To produce the polymer, Cornell researchers came up with a new catalyst based on cobalt and aluminum that assists with polymerization. The result, according to Coates, is a highly desirable and purely chemical route to a polymer that occurs in nature and is easily biodegradable.