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Rethinking plastics From plastic wrap to car tires, we demand a lot from our plastics— elasticity, strength, flexibility and recyclability. The ability to manipulate these qualities has made plastics into a diverse and almost ubiquitous material. The omnipresence of plastics, however, has grave implications for the environment and especially for the world’s oceans. The United Nations Environment Programme predicts that by 2050, there will be as much plastic in the ocean as fish.

‘White pollution’ worldwide Recently, there has been a change in the public’s awareness of and concern for plastic pollution, also called “white pollution.” In addition, many countries are releasing copious amounts of CO₂ into the atmosphere, contributing 6

to global warming. While reducing plastic consumption and encouraging reuse is crucial, Yves Gnanou, KAUST distinguished professor of chemical science and acting vice president for Academic Affairs, working with Nikolaos Hadjichristidis, KAUST distinguished professor of chemical science, developed the first metal-free process for making aliphatic degradable polycarbonates using CO₂. The first successful synthesis of a polycarbonate using CO₂ was done in 1969 by a group of Japanese chemists at the University of Tokyo. For the past five decades, researchers have worked on refining the catalytic process of coupling the greenhouse gas with epoxides using transition metals to make

polymeric materials, but their effort yielded only limited commercial success. China has recently been leading the charge in producing polycarbonates made from CO₂ on a commercial scale. So far, polycarbonates made from CO₂ have been used in China for several applications, including food packaging, plastic shopping bags and protective film for agricultural applications. Industrial investment in polycarbonate production using CO₂ is part of a coordinated effort to reduce emissions. Novomer, a U.S. company specializing in the production of polycarbonates using CO₂, was acquired by Saudi Aramco in 2016. The Novomer process, like factories in China, continues to use metal-based catalysts.

Profile for KAUST

2019 April Beacon  

2019 April Beacon