Who Needs Oil When Scientists Can Make Plastic From Plants?

When our oil supplies run out, it won't just be fuel for our cars that dries up. Everything you own that's made of plastic has been made using the black gold and, until now, there's been no other way to create it. Fortunately, scientists can now produce plastic from plant matter, which could massively cut our dependency on oil.

Scientific American reports that a team of Dutch scientists has found a way of turning plant matter into the basic constituents of common plastics. The team from Utrecht University has produced ethylene and propylene— they're the basic precursors of materials found in everything from CDs to carrier bags—by developing a new iron catalyst made of nanoparticles.

While scientists have tried to make plastic from plant material in the past, they've never been able to recreate direct substitutes, and the products they've come up with have been of limited use. This new system, however, produces chemicals that the plastics industry is already used to dealing with. The research was published this week in Science.

The iron-based catalyst is made up of nanoparticles separated by carbon nanofibers. It works by enabling the conversion of biomass-derived gas into ethylene and propylene. The researchers suggest that non-food biomass, such as fast-growing trees or grasses, could be used as the basis for plastics generated in this way.

While some will no doubt criticize the process—based on the fact that the biomass set aside for plastic production would occupy land that could otherwise be used for agricultural purposes—anything that allows us to decrease our reliance on oil reserves is a major leap forward. [Science via Scientific American; Image: batintherain]