IBM researchers from the Almaden lab in San Jose, Calif. have discovered a new, one-step chemical process that converts polycarbonates into plastics safe for water purification, fiber optics and medical equipment. Every year, the world generates more than 2.7 million tons of a plastic, known as polycarbonates, to create common household items, such as CDs, baby bottles, eyeglass lenses and smartphones. Over time, polycarbonates decompose and leach BPA, a chemical that, in 2008, caused retailers to pull plastic baby bottles from store shelves due to concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the brain.
In astudy, IBM Researchers added a fluoride reactant, a base (similar to baking powder) and heat to old CDs to produce a new plastic with temperature and chemical resistance superior to the original substance. When the powder is reconstructed into new forms, its strength prevents the decomposition process that causes BPA leaching.
"While preventing these plastics from entering landfills, we simultaneously recycle the substance into a new type of plastic -- safe and strong enough for purifying our water and producing medical equipment," said Jeanette Garcia, Ph. D., research staff member, IBM Research – Almaden (San Jose, Calif.).
The researchers used a combination of predictive modeling and experimental lab work to make the discovery. The learning from these research efforts is also used to cognitive systems to help accelerate the materials discovery process.
The full research paper, One-step Conversion of Polycarbonates into Value-added Polyaryl ether sulfones, was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.