Berkeley Lab

Keynote #2: In Search of the Perfect Plastic

By Sarbajit Banerjee

On Day 1 of the Molecular Foundry User Meeting, Prof. Geoffrey W. Coates from Cornell University delivered an inspiring keynote lecture outlining the need for a new paradigm of sustainable polymer chemistry where plastics are designed keeping in mind their environmental impact and end-of-life disposal. Plastics are ubiquitous and this ubiquity is turning out to be a major environmental disaster.

Plastic waste pollutes oceans, contaminates landfills, and gives rise to “plastic rain”. For instance, a “single-use” plastic fork that has an operational lifetime of minutes can persist in the environment for decades. Coates noted that the “perfect plastic” should ideally be accessible starting from renewable resources,  match or surpass  current plastics in terms of performance and cost, be accessible through atomic economical and low-energy processes, and be readily degradable or amenable to recycling. His research group has pioneered synthetic strategies for using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as precursors to high-performance plastics, overcoming challenges inherent in the low reactivity of these molecules.

The plastics that he has developed are finding use across a broad range of applications ranging from polymer electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries to polyurethane packaging materials. His talk provided a  remarkable snapshot of a discipline that is in the process of entirely reinventing itself to meet the needs of a sustainable economy. His keynote lecture spanned the gamut from advances in fundamental organic synthesis to remarkable exemplars of successful commercialization. The keynote lecture spotlighted one of the defining problems of our times and sounded a clarion call to Molecular Foundry’s vibrant research community to entirely reimagine the design, use, and disposal of plastics.