WE ALL know that plastic pollutes oceans, rubbish tips, rivers and so on. We regard it as a scourge and curse its invention. There are no arguments with environmentalists on this subject, except perhaps on the methods of dealing with it. More laws, regulations and taxes are not the answer.
Some see plastic waste as an opportunity. They are entrepreneurs driven by profit. A Cape Town inventor for example is running a pilot plant that can cheaply turn all plastics except PVC into flammable gas and a kind of diesel. He aims to use the 60 million used vehicle tyres we have lying about as raw material.
Now, IBM – that is right, the computer people – have come up with an even better solution. They have invented a type of plastic that is tough, can be dissolved easily, and used again as fresh as it was to start with. It may seem strange that a computer company, using a super computer, was a crucial player in the discovery, but it is perfectly true. Like the discovery of graphene and the power of steam, it came about by accident. The computer had to find out how it happened because nobody knew.
It all began when a young woman from Seattle called Jeanette Garcia, recently employed by IBM and seconded to the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, noticed that the liquid she was working on had gone rock hard. She did not know why or how it had done so. She needed a hammer to smash its container to get it out. The hammer had no effect on the substance.
She knew it was a polymer (a fancy word for plastic), but like no other. When she cut it and then brought the separate pieces together, they bonded to each other again with no visible join.
It resisted solvents and was very stiff. Used like resin in fibreglass, and together with very fine carbon fibres, it made a composite harder than bone. It was also light and could easily be made into a gel that was as elastic as a rubber band.
Best of all, it was cheap to make. It could be used repeatedly with very little chemical effort, so defective plastic parts would be too valuable to discard, and would not end up in rubbish dumps, rivers or the sea.
The possibilities this opens up are enormous. It has the potential to substitute for all the uses we already have for plastics: paint, milk bottles, packaging, parts of cars and planes, cellphones, computers, clothing, electronics, insulation, memory chips – to name but a few.
It could be used in medicine, IBM said, but how exactly it would do so was best left to doctors.
The new polymer could make superior superglue that works every time. This would be good news to do-it-yourselvers.
To get to know all these amazing properties of the new substance, Garcia needed first to know how to make more of it. That is where IBM’s super computer came into the picture. Thanks to its phenomenal power, it was able to work backwards, to find out what chemical reactions and ingredients had led to the new substance.
For those of a scientific inclination the new plastic’s chemical name is polyhexahydrotriazine or, for the rest of us, PHT. It is a combination of two ingredients already used in polymer production. This means it could quickly be adopted by industry.
So there it is, another instance of technology and private initiative providing a solution to a problem – not laws and regulations. The more emotional environmentalists should take heart.
Some might even consider thanking big capital and private enterprise.
Keith Bryer is retired communications consultant.