IBM is out with a new way to recycle polycarbonate — a type of plastic that's commonly used in electronics as well as everyday items.
The company's research unit has developed what is being called a “new, one-step chemical process” that converts polycarbonate and prevents the leaching of bisphenol A, a controversial chemical used to manufacture that polymer.
Researchers in the company's Almaden laboratory in San Jose, California, said the addition of a fluoride reactant, heat and a base similar to baking powder produces a new plastic that will not leach BPA.
They call the new material polyaryl ether sulfones.
Workers at IBM Research, a unit of the company that's known for creating the Watson super computer, used both experimental lab work and predictive modeling in their discovery.
They recycled old CDs to “produce a new plastic with temperature and chemical resistance superior to the original substance,” IBM said. “When the powder is reconstructed into new forms, its strength prevents the decomposition process that causes BPA leaching.”
Polycarbonates are already recycled through traditional methods — think sorting, washing and shredding — before being turned into new products.
But IBM Research's work changes the chemistry of the material while allaying BPA concerns.
“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, a research staff member at IBM Research, in a statement.
IBM estimates that 2.7 million tonnes of polycarbonate is made around the world each year.
BPA widely came to the public's attention in 2008 when there were reports of the material leaching from baby bottles.
A research paper, entitled “One-step Conversion of Polycarbonates into Value-Added Polyaryl ether sulfones” has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America — PNAS for short.
“We now have a new way of recycling to improve how this prominent substance impacts the world's health and environment,” said Gavin Johns, a research staff member at IBM Research in Almaden.
Garcia and Jones are two of the five authors of the paper.