As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself thinking of things for which I am thankful. One of those things is technology.

Butterball turkey
A Thanksgiving staple in plastic film to seal in freshness and netting. Image courtesy Anthony Easton/flickr.

People often ask, what are the greatest technological achievements of all time? You’ve probably heard questions like this. I know I have. The answers are usually fairly typical: The steam engine—or the internal combustion engine. The movable-type printing press. The airplane. The personal computer. The internet. Putting human beings on the surface of the moon— and then bringing them back home.

These are all fantastic achievements, and they changed history. They also involve combinations of technologies, arranged in new and unique ways to do something big.

In my mind, great technological achievements are not mega events, they are subtle little breakthroughs that change everything. I think of the discovery of the simple machines, including the wheel—and the axle. The lever. The pulley. The inclined plane.

I think of breakthroughs in materials. The mixing of mud and grass to make bricks, the world’s first composite material. The firing of clay to create rigid, heat-resistant pottery, which allowed for water to be boiled. The smelting of copper and tin to make bronze, ushering in the Bronze Age. The alloying of iron with carbon, giving birth not only to the Iron Age, but to the making of steel, the world’s first synthetic material.

I think of breakthroughs in applied sciences. The discovery of the concept of density by Archimedes. That gave us the Eureka moment: Ah-hah! I have found it! The conversion of fat into soap by the action of heat in the presence of an alkali, like wood ash, a process now called saponification. I am thankful for the discovery of saponification. Where would mankind be without soap?

I think of breakthroughs in the creation of other synthetic materials: Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride (aka Bakelite). Polyhexamethylenediamine-adipic acid (aka nylon). Polyethylene (aka PE). I think of the applications of those materials. Electrical insulators. Cable ties. Plastic bags. Duct tape. Saran wrap.

Saran wrap is a brand name for a line of PE film sold by S.C. Johnson & Co. It was originally used to describe a film made of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), which was discovered by Dow Chemical. I am thankful for the invention of plastic film. Where would we be without plastic film packaging for food? However, we do have issues with our use of PE film, including re-use, disposal, recycling.

My collection of PE film this month is larger than in past months and will probably end up being stuffed into a a 13-gallon plastic trash bag. It felt weird pulling that bag of its box. I am using a brand new bag—made of PE film—to be used for my recyclable film project. Of course, the box that the bag came from is made of 100% recycled cardboard.

This month, there are the usual small bags, including a small wrapper from a paint trim roller, 4 inches long, 3/8 inch nap. I think the roller and its fibers are made of polyester; not sure. Nothing beats a fresh coat of paint. But I am certain the wrapper is made of PE film. Also, the wrapper from some organic cherry tomatoes, on the vine. They looked so sweet when I bought them. Yesterday, they didn’t look so good. The tomatoes are now in the compost pile. The wrapper is in the bag of recyclable film (after being washed and dried, of course). And soon, a wrapper from a frozen turkey.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for PE film.

P.S.: I came across a website that has a page to find a collection site. Turns out there are dozens of nearby stores where I can drop off my clean plastic film, including Target, Kohl’s, Walmart, Vons and Lowes. Who knew?

Read part one of this series, which includes links to all of the other installments.

Eric LarsonEric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years’ experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.


In what is described as a world first, researchers in Australia and New Zealand have developed a 3D-printing process that is compatible with “controlled polymerization,” using visible light to control the makeup of polymers and “tune” their mechanical properties. The new process also enables 4D printing, by which the 3D-printed object can change shape or its chemical and physical properties can be altered to adapt to its environment. Advancing the recycling and reuse of plastics and supporting biomedical breakthroughs are among the potential applications.

Dial showing create and improve

Research teams from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the University of Auckland in New Zealand collaborated in the successful merging of 3D and 4D printing and photo-controlled, or “living,” polymerization. The method uses visible light to “create an environmentally friendly ‘living’ plastic or polymer [that] opens a new world of possibilities for the manufacture of advanced solid materials,” writes Caroline Tang in an article published on the UNSW website.

The research builds upon the 2014 discovery of PET-RAFT polymerization (Photoinduced Electron/energy Transfer-Reversible Addition Fragmentation Chain Transfer polymerization) at the UNSW Sydney Boyer Lab. Described as a new way to make controlled polymers using visible light, the technology was not compatible with 3D printing. “The rates of typical controlled polymerization processes are too slow for 3D printing, where the reaction must be fast for practical printing speeds,” explained Cyrille Boyer, lead author of a paper describing the research in Angewandte Chemie International Edition. Two years of research and hundreds of experiments eventually bore fruit with the development of a 3D-printing system that enabled the PET-RAFT polymerization technique.

By using visible light, the researchers are able “to control the architecture of the polymers and [to] tune the mechanical properties of the materials prepared by our process,” said Boyer. “This new process also gives us access to 4D printing and allows the material to be transformed, or functionalized, which was not previously possible.”

“With 4D printing, the 3D-printed object can change its shape and chemical or physical properties and adapt to its environment,” explained UNSW’s Nathaniel Corrigan, co-first author of the paper.

“In our work, the 3D-printed material could reversibly change its shape when it was exposed to water and then dried. For example, the 3D object starts as a flat plane and when exposed to certain conditions, it will start to fold—that’s a 4D material. So, the fourth dimension is time.”

The researchers envisage multiple potential groundbreaking applications for the new technology. The material could negate the need to recycle or discard plastics in some cases because the “new living material will be able to repair itself,” explained Boyer. As a “living” object, the plastic part can continue to grow and expand, he said. It would also enable advanced biological applications, such as tissue engineering, added Boyer.

“Current 3D printing approaches are typically limited by the harsh conditions required, such as strong UV light and toxic chemicals, which limits their use in making biomaterials,” Corrigan explained in the news release. “But with the application of PET-RAFT polymerization to 3D printing, we can produce long polymer molecules using visible light rather than heat. Using heat above 40 degrees kills cells, but for visible light polymerization we can use room temperature, so the viability of the cells is much higher.”


Ever since someone—perhaps a scientist at Archer Daniels Midland back in the 1990s—discovered that polymer materials can be made from corn, the world has been on a tear to develop bioplastics out of everything imaginable. It’s like there’s a huge contest to see who can make plastic—specifically bioplastics—out of the weirdest stuff.

Mad scientist

The latest headline I saw broke the news that scientists were making bioplastics out of fish guts. I just couldn’t bring myself to read the article. Maybe there are a lot of scientists out there who just want to fiddle around and make plastics out of algae, switchgrass, sugar cane and a variety of other food stuffs, even soil bacteria “in a controlled fermentation environment” (PHA).

The rationale for creating so-called “natural” polymers rests on the idea that bioplastics are better because they come from nature: “PHA Comes from Nature, Returns to Nature,” says Danimer Scientific’s home page. But almost everything we humans make comes from nature: Aluminum, steel, iron, gold, paper, textiles, glass and, yes, traditional polymers all come from natural resources, which means that all of these materials are “natural.”

I understand that the key is getting value from these materials after their useful lifespan, either through recycling or waste-to-energy. Other alternatives, such as composting through a biodegradation process, don’t work so well. Glass doesn’t biodegrade. Archeologists studying early American colonies have dug up glass bottles that are 200 years old! Metals will eventually rust if left in the earth or in marine environments long enough, but remnants of iron fittings from ancient ships found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea are a testament to the longevity of most metals. Of course, metal and glass in the marine environment sink to the bottom. The problem with plastic is that it floats, and, therefore, is visible.

You can make plastic from just about anything. Senior Reporter Eric Munson wrote an article in The Review, an independent student newspaper at the University of Delaware, “The Truth about Biodegradable Plastics” (Nov. 18, 2019), in which he interviewed McKay Jenkins, a professor of English, journalism and environmental humanities, about biodegradable plastics. “A plastic is anything made from a wide range of polymers regardless of the ingredients. So you can make plastic out of petrochemicals [chemicals obtained from petroleum and natural gas], but you can also make plastic out of potatoes, corn and soybeans,” Jenkins explained.

That is true, but there’s been some pushback from people who reject the idea of using food products to make plastic, given the number of people in the world who are “food insecure” and, thus, need food more than they need plastic bags made from food.

Jenkins noted an important factor in his interview with Munson: Biodegradability doesn’t offer much greater benefits than traditional plastics. “If [plastic] doesn’t break down [in the environment] it’s a problem,” he said. “If it does break down, it’s a problem.”

So the obvious answer is to make plastic bags, containers, cups, bottles and so forth out of traditional materials that come from the earth (oil, natural gas) so they can provide the tremendous benefits that come with such items, but educate people on keeping these items out of land and marine environments.

Munson also interviewed Melanie Ezrin, a junior public policy and environmental science major, who explained that the term biodegradable “means that plastic breaks down into ‘natural products,’ meaning nothing chemical or artificial. [Biodegradable plastics] don’t decay the way people think they do,” Ezrin said. “You hear the word ‘biodegradable’ and you think of throwing an apple into the woods.”

Ezrin points out what we in the industry have long known—anything made into plastic via an industrial process must use an industrial process to break it down. “You really have to break them down industrially,” Ezrin said. “If you just throw plastic in your backyard, it’s going to be there most of the time.”

Jenkins also noted to Munson that his home composter is “good at burning food,” but the compostable plastic he threw in has been sitting there for years.

Even some companies that manufacture bioplastics admit that the best way to get rid of bioplastic items at the end of their useful life is in landfills. “We believe it makes more sense to put renewable materials in the landfill instead of non-renewable materials,” Stephen Croskrey, CEO of Danimer Scientific, maker of Nodax PHA resin, told PlasticsToday in an interview published a few months ago. “In the event [it ends up as] litter, the [Nodax PHA] will break down, unlike fossil fuel–based products.”

Given all of that information and what we know about the many advantages of traditional plastics for use in retail bags, food and beverage containers and medical applications, why is everyone pushing so hard and spending so much time and resources to try and develop more polymers out of ever-stranger natural stuff?

Fish guts? Seriously?

Image courtesy J.J. at the English language Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]


It was an odd movie by most accounts. “Space Milkshakes” was a 2012 Canadian science fiction cult comedy film that followed the exploits of four blue collar astronauts in the future who are stuck together on a Sanitation Station orbiting the Earth. Their main purpose was to shoot down enough space junk to maintain a clean corridor for traveling space craft. But the real story evolved around avoiding an earth destroying event from a time-traveling duck. But I digress.

Flash forward (or would it be backward) to the recent past, the week of May 30, 2019. On that day, Elon Musk’s space company fired 60 small satellites on the company’s SpaceX rocket. These communication satellites were the first installment of an internet-beaming mega-constellation that the company hopes will grow to include thousands of satellites over the next few years.

Then, on November 11, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. This continue barrage of launches are driven by SpaceX’s contract to have 2,213 Starlink satellites in orbit by March 2024 or face penalties from the FCC. (Sidenote: The November 2019 launch was also the first time that a SpaceX Falcon 9 re-used its fairings. (Think in terms of “cubsats.” But that’s another story.)

Competitors such as United Launch Alliance, ArianeGroup, Amazon/Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, Stratolaunch Systems, NASA, China and others will be following the SpaceX lead. All want to capture the potentially lucrative business of beaming broadband communications to Earth from space. This is all part of a larger Internet of Space (IoS) movement, which hopes to create a vast computer network in mostly low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites and other platforms that will serve as nodes to communicate with one another and users on the Earth.

The problem is that all these extra satellites will enter a LEO that is already overcrowded with almost 2,000 existing satellites, nearly 3,000 dead satellites and around 34,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 centimeters in size, according to the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Space Debris Office.

(Image Source: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

It takes surprisingly little to make space debris a real collision hazard. And size does matter! It’s all back to basic physics: F=MA. For example, a fleck of paint (very small mass) traveling at nearly 17,900 miles per hour (high acceleration) could cause major damage (via force) if it slams into a satellite.

Increasing the number of satellites in orbit will increase the risk of collisions that could lead to the catastrophic Kessler syndrome. (Recall the 2013 film “Gravity?”) First proposed in 1978 by the NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, the syndrome represents a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions. One implication is that the distribution of debris in orbit could render space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbital ranges difficult for many generations.

A Kessler Syndrome event might well change the Internet of Space (IoS) into a defunct Internet of Space Junk.

Messy Milkshake

Currently, whenever space junk or the parts of a defunct spacecraft gets too close to an active satellite, the satellite’s operator must perform a collision-avoidance maneuver. The football size, 450-ton International Space Station (ISS) has had to move a few times to avoid serious collision with space debris.

Now let’s return to the “Space Milkshake” movie.  Rather than move the ISS, what if we could somehow neutralize the collision threat. The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Clean Space Initiative, with help from global universities and NASA, is looking to do just that.

One way to clean up potentially dangerous (and litigiousness) space junk and debris would be to launch a chaser which would go and capture the larger pieces. Yet, this represents a challenging task as these debris’ items are often uncontrolled and therefore difficult to rendezvous with and secure. But artificial intelligence (AI)  could help catch former satellites.

ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team and Stanford University in the US are working together to use machine learning (ML) and AI technologies to determine the best way to estimate the distance and orientation of an object in space.

Once the space targets have been identified and precisely located, the next step is to capture them. One of the more interesting commercial efforts to capture space junk is the recent RemoveDEBRIS mission, a satellite research project lead by the Surrey Space Centre from the University of Surrey. Partners on the project include Airbus, ArianeGroup, Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, Inria, Innovative Solutions In Space, Surrey Space Centre, and Stellenbosch University.

Early in 2018, the RemoveDEBRIS mission launched on a SpaceX Dragon rocket platform during a resupply to the ISS. The mission itself was deployed a few months later. The mission utilized imaging technology and other sophisticated equipment, plus a harpoon and net (produced by Airbus) to capture space debris, starting with the biggest chunks first.

RemoveDEBRIS carried out a test of its onboard vision-based navigation (VBN) system on October 28, 2019. The test witnessed the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft release a target cubesat and then take images of the descending object and its surroundings using its flash LiDAR and camera. This information provided information critical for measuring distance, direction and speed of space debris, which would be necessary for the second phase of the test.

The NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite after deployment from the ISS. (Image Source: NASA) 

In September, the spacecraft containing RemoveDEBRIS used a net to capture a deployed target (a cubsat) simulating a piece of space debris. Future plans call for the use of a space harpoon where a space net might not be practical.

This appears to be the first time in human history of space-based active debris removal (ADR) technology. Although some readers might remember the 1980’s US Strategic Defense Initiative which proposed the use of kinetic nets to disarm (not really capture) LEO and lower foreign misses.

Other ongoing initiates are looking to melt space debris in place or push it into the earth’s orbit where gravity will do the same thing. All these efforts can’t come soon enough if we are to clean up the communication and traveling hazards that have been caused in space. Perhaps this will also lessen the dangers from future time-traveling space ducks.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.


As a global leader in developing and producing responsible packaging for food and beverage, pharmaceutical, medical, home and personal care, and other products, Amcor is boldly stepping up to the plate to promote plastics as the material of choice. With a goal of educating consumers, customers and other stakeholders on the benefits of plastic packaging, Amcor (Ann Arbor, MI) recently launched a “Choose Plastic” marketing campaign. The multi-pronged initiative, which includes a new web page, an informative brochure and other materials, is designed to:

  • Tell the “PET story” with truth, strength and conviction, clearing up common misperceptions regarding plastic packaging;
  • demonstrate where PET stands versus other packaging types, including glass, cans and Tetra aseptic boxes;
  • help customers educate their employees, legislators and consumers on the benefits of plastic packaging.

Amcor's PET campaign

“Plastic packaging gives our customers a safe, responsible and recyclable way to deliver products to their consumers,” said Eric Roegner, President of Amcor Rigid Packaging (ARP). “PET is infinitely recyclable and its carbon footprint is less than glass and other packaging materials. But there is still room for improvement, which is why we are working together with our customers and industry partners to boost recycling rates, increase the proportion of recycled content in the plastics we use, and reduce the waste in landfills and nature. Our goal is to create an overall positive impact for all stakeholders.”

Not only are PET bottles and jars lightweight, shatterproof, transparent, recloseable and resealable, studies also show that they are infinitely recyclable, generate up to 70% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other packaging types, require fewer fossil fuels to produce than aluminum cans and cost less to transport than glass. Additionally, 90% of the PET that goes into recycling bins gets recycled, while only 49% of cans, 40% of glass and 16% of Tetra aseptic boxes get recycled.

Roegner also noted that 97% of Amcor Rigid Packaging’s bottles and jars are designed to be recyclable. The company has pledged to develop all of its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025.

In addition, Amcor is working with organizations such as the Plastics Industry Association, NAPCOR and The Recycling Partnership to promote plastics, increase recycling rates and drive greater use of post-consumer materials. Amcor is also working with environmental organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and Trash Free Seas Alliance to eliminate plastic waste.

“PET has a positive story to tell,” added Roegner. “Together with industry partners, we want to make sure that story gets told.”


Lux Research (Boston) released on November 7 its Annual List of Transformational Technologies that are projected to have the greatest impact over the next 10 years.

Lux’s “20 for 2020” report identifies and ranks 20 technologies that will reshape the world, based on innovation interest scores from the Lux Intelligence Engine, along with input from Lux’s leading analysts.Lux-20-for-2020 Report Cover Square

While they are factored in, the report goes beyond megatrends, market demand and new innovations that can thrust many technologies into the spotlight by also providing a shortlist that is intended to provide “data-backed context for the ever-shifting technology landscape and insights into how companies can maximize the investment opportunities these data trends reveal.”

I mean, Lux really goes deep, poring through patents, papers, funding and more.

In short, it lists the emerging technologies that the firm is most bullish on near term and over the next decade. I thought it would be of interest to readers to pull out the ones of particular interest to the plastics community from this fascinating list—and we barely have to go into the list to find the first.

But we’ll begin with what Lux’s identifies as the top two broad transformational market drivers:

1. 5G Networks: From robotic surgery to self-driving cars, 5G will be critical to advances in the internet of things. 5G has officially left the realm of research and entered reality, with more than 2,200 patents being filed this year. 

2. Shared Mobility: With more than $10 billion in funding every year for the past three years, shared mobility—like car-sharing services—are reinventing urban transportation. This was a new entry to the leaderboard as is the next.Lux Top 20 List

And at #3, it’s…

That brings us to #3, which is the first in the list to point directly to plastics via a top-of-mind topic that’s of interest throughout the plastics community and beyond because it’s a subset, and perhaps a large one, of a circular value chain.

3. Advanced Plastic Recycling: Innovations that can convert plastic waste into a variety of valuable products, enabling a circular economy and avoiding pollution.

Mission-critical for companies from consumer-packaged goods companies to chemicals, China has invested in recycling technology in a big way, with 55% of all patents coming from that country. 

The report expands on the topic in the summary, noting…

Why it’s important: Regulations like single-use plastic bans and waste reduction commitments from brands are shaking up the plastics value chain. Plastic waste recycling is becoming mission-critical for companies from CPGs to chemicals.

What you should do: Companies need to develop waste collection and sorting and help scale up conversion technologies like pyrolysis and chemical recycling. Look for those collecting and converting to present new competition for oil, chemicals, and materials companies in the new circular value chain.


PlasticsToday had already identified this as a high-interest market when noting that reports on this topic, especially recently, appear at the top of our monthly metrics reports of the best-read content.

The Top 25 most-read articles from among approximately 900 published so far in 2019 at PlasticsToday are dominated by the overarching themes of recycling and sustainability, including also these three recent features on advanced recycling:

Dow to source pyrolysis oil feedstock made from recycled plastic waste, published August 2019;

Is plasma gasification the solution for plastics and all waste?, published August 2019;

Is an age-old chemical process the solution to today’s plastic waste problem?, published July 2019.

Some 78 articles appear using the search term chemical recycling, and there are 145 when the term is combined with pyrolysis.

Lux’s Top 5 rounds out with Solid State Batteries followed by Protein Production.

Next: Additional plastic references

invisible ink, environmentally friendly, Institute of Advanced Materials at Nanjing University, rewriteable paper coating, water-jet printer
Researchers in China have developed a water-based invisible ink that can be used to encrypt secret or sensitive information that’s printed on paper. The method is a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to fluorescent inks currently used for this purpose today, researchers said. (Image source: Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications)

Researchers from the Institute of Advanced Materials at the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications in China have developed a simple and secure printing technology in the form of a water-based invisible ink that can be used to encrypt secret or sensitive information.

The rather low-tech method is basically a rewriteable paper coating that can be printed by a water-jet printer on a manganese-complex-coated paper.

The writing produced by the technique is invisible to the naked eye. However, a 254-nanometer UV light shined on the paper reveals the message. Moreover, the paper can be recycled and reused for up to another 30 rounds of printing after heating the paper with a blow dryer for 15 to 30 seconds, which erases the message. 

The paper encryption method is not just low-tech, but also a low-cost and environmentally-friendly alternative to the current use of fluorescent security inks for protecting paper-based information, said Qiang Zhao, one of the researchers on the project and an associate professor of applied physics and computational mathematics at the institute.

“The rewritable feature significantly reduces the cost,” Zhao said in a press statement. Indeed, the cost per print is estimated to be RMB0.014 in Chinese yuan, or $0.002 US, he said.

“Most fluorescent security inks on the market used to record confidential information are environmentally unfriendly and cannot be erased,” Zhao added. “The paper is only a disposable recording medium.”

Zhao’s team developed the new method based on previous work researchers had done to regulate organic materials’ photoluminescence properties by modifying the molecular structure, he said. The team recently discovered that the material could change its optical or electrical properties through external stimulus alone.

“We developed a rewritable security printing method by utilizing the photoluminescence responses of manganese complex to water,” he said in the press statement.

Enhancing Safety and Security

Researchers view their water-jet printing method as a cost-efficient way to encrypt printed materials. But they said it does have one drawback – the short-wavelength UV light used to trigger the water-jet security printing can be harmful to humans.

Because of this, Zhao said the team is focused on developing humidity-sensitive manganese complexes that can be excited by visible or near-infrared light, which is much safer for humans.

“Our work is to provide a practical printing method,” Zhao said in the press statement. “Thus, we need to make sure that it’s non-toxic or has low harm to the human body.”

The team also is developing a high-level security printing to complement the low-tech, water-jet technique to protect information from general decryption methods, researchers said.

In this technique, researchers coat the paper with phosphine ligands, which can grab on to manganese in the manganese-halide salt solution ink to create manganese complex, they said.

This renders the recorded information invisible under both ambient light and UV light; however, a photoluminescence lifetime imaging (PLIM) technique can reveal the encrypted data in different colors of red, yellow, green, and blue, depending on the emission lifetime, Zhao said.

“The dynamic manipulation of the emission lifetime has been achieved for the first time by utilizing the reversible ionic interactions of manganese complexes,” he said in the release.

The team envisions that their techniques can be used widely in both the public and private sector to protect the security of information, especially in the economic and military fields, Zhao added.

Researchers published a paper of their work in the journal Matter

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


2019 October Top 5 in Packaging PT Autumn leaf

Welcome to November, which is anchored by a reflective, family-oriented holiday, Thanksgiving. The month began Friday, immediately after October’s swan song festival of Halloween where kids can be kids and adults can also dress up as whoever or whatever they want to be.

With a new month underway we review the best of October in plastics packaging, done by assessing the most popular articles of the month at the PlasticsToday Packaging channel as determined by page views. As with previous compilations across any particular timeframe, the list is populated by an abundance of sustainably centered news. In fact, sustainable packaging nearly ran the table, the lone exception being a slideshow feature of a wild invention that’s sandwiched at #3 exactly in the middle of the quintet.Coke Pepsi logo

We begin in typical reverse order with the #5 article of the month that checks in on the sustainability news from two of the world’s largest rival beverage brands, Coca-Cola Company (Atlanta) and PepsiCo (Purchase, NY).

Unfortunately, both left the Plastics Industry Association because of so-called philosophical disagreements with that organization’s strategies. Since then, both companies have launched new efforts to solve the problems that the plastics industry apparently has created for them, points out veteran plastics reporter Clare Goldsberry.

In a release sent in September, PepsiCo announced accelerated efforts to reduce plastic waste, primarily through cutting by 35% use of virgin plastic across its beverage brands by 2025, “driven by increased use of recycled content and alternative packaging.”

In a more positive tone, Goldsberry mentioned Coke’s development of first-ever sample bottles made using recovered and recycled marine plastics, demonstrating that, one day, even ocean debris could be used in recycled packaging for drinks (see First-of-a-kind Coca-Cola PET bottles made from ocean plastics, published October 2019).

For more, read What in the world of sustainability are Coke and Pepsi up to now?

Next: A K 2019 update to clarify oxo-biodegradable plastics


A new aluminum battery design from researchers in Europe consists of an anode and cathode made of aluminum and an anthraquinone-based organic material, respectively. ​​​​(Image source: Yen Strandqvist​)

A team of researchers in Europe believes their concept for an aluminum battery will prove to be more energy-dense and environmentally-friendly than lithium-ion.

Developed by scientists from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and the National Institute of Chemistry, Slovenia, the design shows a viable, sustainable alternative to current lithium-ion batteries, said Niklas Lindahl, a researcher from Chalmers University.

“We have developed a new concept for more sustainable batteries [that are] less

environmentally harmful compared to lithium-ion batteries,” he told Design News. “Aluminum batteries are more sustainable mainly due to their use of only abundant materials.”

The researchers recently published a paper on their work in the journal Energy Storage Materials.

Lithium-ion batteries have been the norm for myriad electronic devices for some time. But since they aren’t particularly eco-friendly, scientists have long been searching for new designs and materials that will have less impact on the environment.

While the new design is not the first time scientists have attempted to come up with an aluminum battery on par with lithium-ion batteries, it is one of the most successful, the researchers said.

In previous designs, researchers used aluminum as the anode – the negative electrode – and graphite as the cathode – the positive electrode. But graphite does not provide the energy needed for useful battery performance.

In the new design, researchers replaced graphite with an organic, nanostructured cathode made of the carbon-based molecule anthraquinone. This material enables storage of positive charge-carriers from the electrolyte – the solution in which ions move between the electrodes—creating substantially higher energy density than previous aluminum battery designs, Lindahl said.

“Hence, the energy density (the amount of stored energy per mass of active material) could be doubled, compared to previous state-of-the-art aluminum batteries,” Lindahl told Design News. “Or put differently, a battery of the same weight could store twice as much energy.”

Designs for the Future

The use of aluminum over lithium has key advantages for battery design, according to the Lindahl. Aside from its abundance and the already established manufacturing structures in place for the material—which would make battery fabrication less expensive and more sustainable—it is also, in principle, a significantly better charge carrier than lithium. “[Aluminum] is multivalent, which means every ion compensates for several electrons,” Lindahl explained.

However, this also presents a design challenge for the researchers, in terms of developing compatible electrolytes and cathodes. There are also challenges to making an aluminum battery with the same scale and performance levels as lithium-ion batteries

“Although this work shows that novel cathode materials can double the energy density, aluminum batteries are less than half as energy-dense as lithium-ion batteries,” Lindahl said. “But our long-term goal is to achieve the same energy density.”

To achieve this, researchers plan to continue their work to develop better charging mechanisms for the battery electrolyte, among other improvements.

While the scientists aren’t sure aluminum batteries would entirely replace current battery designs, at the very least they could be complementary and used for applications, such as IoT devices and for storage of solar and wind energy, Lindahl told Design News.

This would reserve lithium-ion batteries for use only “where strictly necessary, [such as] in mobile applications where high energy density is most important,” he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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From left: Researchers Christopher Graves, Michal Bajdich and Michael Machala work on the development of a new method for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide for carbon-neutral fuels. (Image source: Mark Golden)

While researchers have experimented with using alternative fuels for large modes of transport such as airplanes, so far they haven’t found a truly viable option.

That could change thanks to new research from scientists at Stanford University and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), who have developed a new method for turning carbon dioxide into energy-rich carbon monoxide.

This crucial conversion is the first step to transforming carbon monoxide into nearly any liquid “carbon-neutral” fuel and even synthetic gas and plastics. The researchers believe their method could lead to cost-effective ways to more broadly convert larger quantities of carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide for the production of carbon-neutral fuels. Lowering costs and other barriers could lead to viable fuels for even heavy modes of transportation, which require energy-dense fuels.

The latest breakthrough was led by William Chueh, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, and Christopher Graves, associate professor in DTU’s Energy Conversion & Storage Department. Theis Skafte, a DTU doctoral candidate at the time, also participated in the work, which took place at Stanford. The team published a recent study on their work in the journal Nature Energy.

Chueh and Graves had been separately working on high-temperature electrolysis of carbon dioxide for years, but the breakthrough came only when the teams put their heads together, said Skafte, now a postdoctoral researcher at DTU.

“We achieved something we couldn’t have separately – both a fundamental understanding and practical demonstration of a more robust material,” he said in a press statement.

Removing Key Barriers

The Stanford/DTU research team used electricity and an Earth-abundant catalyst, cerium oxide (also known as ceria), to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide. Unlike other catalysts used in this process, cerium oxide is much more resistant to breaking down.

Plants transform carbon dioxide to carbon-rich sugars naturally, but scientists still have yet to find a commercially viable artificial electrochemical route to turn this gas into carbon monoxide. Current devices developed to do this use too much electricity, convert a low percentage of carbon dioxide molecules, or produce pure carbon that destroys the device, according to the researchers.

For their approach, the Stanford-DTU team built two cells for carbon dioxide conversion testing – one with cerium oxide and the other with conventional nickel-based catalysts. What they found is that the ceria electrode remained stable, while carbon deposits damaged the nickel electrode, which substantially shortened the catalyst’s lifetime.

“This remarkable capability of ceria has major implications for the practical lifetime of CO2 electrolyzer devices,” Graves said in a press statement. “Replacing the current nickel electrode with our new ceria electrode in the next-generation electrolyzer would improve device lifetime.”

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

The Midwest’s largest advanced design and manufacturing event!

Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis connects you with top industry experts, including esign and manufacturing suppliers, and industry leaders in plastics manufacturing, packaging, automation, robotics, medical technology, and more. This is the place where exhibitors, engineers, executives, and thought leaders can learn, contribute, and create solutions to move the industry forward. Register today!