A New Form of Recycling: Creating Materials that Self-Destruct

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Plastic trash, mobile phones, and other nondegradable materials account for millions of tons of waste thrown away each day. But researchers at the Technical University in Munich, Stanford University and research and development departments around the world have found ways to create materials that self-destruct, following nature’s recycling plan.

Artificial Materials are Made to Last

Fossil fuels and petroleum have become mainstays of products that include plastics, electronics, fabrics, and more, and typically don’t biodegrade like materials made from natural, Earth-based resources such as trees and plants. Even though petroleum was created by the biodegradation of dinosaurs, when manufacturers started using petroleum to make plastics and other products, they ended up creating indestructible goods.

The main ingredient derived from petroleum products, propylene, turns into polypropylene during the manufacture process. The heat and catalysts applied during the production process create carbon-based polypropylene chains that form virtually indestructible bonds, something Earth’s natural recycling process cannot break down.

Nature took billions of years to develop organisms that break down organic matter, something that until recently, did not occur in man-made products made with petroleum.

Self-Destructive Materials

Because most man-made materials are typically stable and don’t exchange molecules with their environment, they are basically indestructible. In nature, organic matter is not in balance and will begin to degrade without input from sources that help to rebuild cellular structures.

Life Cycle of Self-Destructive Materials

Taking cues from nature, researchers at the Technical University in Munich have found ways to make materials that self-destruct. When these products lack energy sources, such as adenosine triphosphate – a coenzyme the human body uses to convert glucose from fats, carbohydrates and proteins into energy – these new self-destructive materials begin to break down, much in the same way that nature biodegrades organic matter. Without the energy source, just like in nature, these man-made materials begin to die.

Self-Destructive Material Uses

Scientists at Stanford University have developed faux wood made from biodegradable plastics. The biodegradable plastics can replace indestructible plastics, and the wood can be used to make building materials, biodegradable electronics and even plastic bottles that break down. Virtually any product made with nondestructible components can be made from these new materials.

Medical Applications

By making materials that self-destruct or break down into their original building blocks, engineers and researchers postulate that they can make frameworks for drug delivery and transplant anchors. Researchers at UCLA have also developed a hydrogel that creates a scaffold to allow wounds to heal and tissue to regenerate as the structure biodegrades. The hydrogel promotes rapid regeneration allowing wounds and skin grafts, among other medical uses, to heal quicker.

Man-Made Materials and Environmental Health

The online newspaper, The Guardian, stated in a January 2017 article that, “annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, far outstripping recycling efforts and jeopardizing oceans, coastlines and other environments.” Claiming that world’s plastic addiction is more dangerous than climate change, plastics have a negative affect both on the Earth and its oceans’ environmental health. The article also stated that a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, which is building toward this environmental crisis. Adding to the problem, is that only half of all the plastic purchased is ever recycled.

What it all Means

Materials that self-destruct can begin to alleviate the burgeoning environmental crisis that threatens to overtake our oceans and landfills. By developing products that self-degrade, dangerous plastics and chemicals will no longer affect the Earth’s biosphere. By not adding to the already existing pollution problem, scientists may be able to develop less costly methods to collect and recycle existing petroleum-based plastics into other uses. In the long run, the means to eliminate plastic and other pollution problems begins with recycling at home, work and school.

References

About the Author

As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.

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