Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Plastics without petrol?

CNN is reporting that a South Korean team consisting of scientists from KAIST and LG Chem have developed a way to make polymers used in everyday plastics using a bioengineering process involving E. coli that negates the need for expensive and messy fossil fuel-based chemicals:
It is believed that the technique may now allow for the production of environmentally-friendly plastic that is biodegradable and low in toxicity.

The research focused on Polylactic Acid (PLA), a bio-based polymer which holds the key to producing plastics through natural and renewable resources. Polymers are molecules found in everyday life in the form of plastics and rubbers.

"The polyesters and other polymers we use everyday are mostly derived from fossil oils made through the refinery or chemical process," Professor Sang Yup Lee, who lead the research, said in a press statement.

"The idea of producing polymers from renewable biomass has attracted much attention due to the increasing concerns of environmental problems and the limited nature of fossil resources. PLA is considered a good alternative to petroleum-based plastics, as it is both biodegradable and has a low toxicity to humans."

Until now PLA has been produced in a two-step fermentation and chemical process of polymerization, which is both complex and expensive. The team used a metabolically engineered strain of E. coli and developed a one-stage process.
Mass production of plastic out of E. coli? Well, that's not a disaster movie plot waiting to happen.


Seriously, though, the CNN story makes it sound like this is a major step or some kind of breakthrough, but it's hard to tell. My understanding is that polylactic acid has been used to make plastics through corn or sugarcane, so that part would not be new. It seems the E. coli manufacturing process is the breakthrough, but the article doesn't really emphasize that novel aspect particularly well.

Groundbreaking advance or not, this kind of innovation is the kind of thing that helps propel the South Korean economy forward, not to mention anybody else who can take advantage of being able to make biodegradable plastics without petroleum. And wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to rely on that stuff so much?

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6 comments:

  1. KAIST University is in Daegu, right?

    Daegu cedes KAIST to Seoul !!! !!!

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  2. Not Taegu, but Taejŏn.

    But at any rate, decidedly not Seoul. I noticed that, too, but I forgot to mention it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good thing it's not in Seoul... Too many distractions. They had to move Yonsei's campus because of that.

    My cousin goes to school in Taejon. Slower pace of life. People are more traditional there. Not such an urban rat race.

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  4. Edward wrote:
    Good thing it's not in Seoul... Too many distractions.

    You say it like it's an accident or a happy happenstance. Rather, KAIST was placed in Taejŏn by design. One of those "regionally balanced development" things that have been important for a long time in Korea.

    They had to move Yonsei's campus because of that.

    You mean putting the dental school or whazit out in Wonju?

    My cousin goes to school in Taejon. Slower pace of life. People are more traditional there. Not such an urban rat race.

    Though in fact it has a population well over a million (1.4 mllion, I think), it does have a small-town feel to it, at least compared to Seoul or Pusan.

    It's nice how it's arranged in a grid, one of the few cities where that happened. It would be boring if all the cities were like that, but it's nice to have at least one.

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  5. I briefly dated someone from Taejŏn so went there a couple times to see her. I also had a friend from Japan, a Japanese language instructor, who was teaching at a university there, so I visited her a few times. Enough to get a feel for the laid-backness of the place.

    Kuryongsan National Park, one of the "lesser" national parks, is nearby and makes for a nice getaway.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "You mean putting the dental school or whazit out in Wonju?"

    I dunno... I don't have any additional details. I just got that from my ex gf who went to Yonsei.

    ReplyDelete

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