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Science Teaser - 3

by Al deAprix, Jr.

Down on the Farm…The Plastic Grows for Us

When I was a junior high student, I had good science fair success with thermo-setting phenolic
resins. While investigating their chemistry, I became curious about the possibility of producing plastics
from agricultural products. In between several of my experiments with phenolics I decided to attempt
making plastic from milk. Combining the milk with formaldehyde plus a catalyst and heating the mixture,
I managed to produce a reasonably strong, cream-colored plastic.
I didn’t think any more about my experiment until 2009, when I was teaching economics. We
were examining the concepts of renewable versus nonrenewable resources. Thinking back to my earlier
experiment, I wondered of making plastics from renewable agricultural products could become a substitute
for nonrenewable fossil fuels; if agri-chemicals (or bio-chemicals as they are also known) could be used to
develop materials from renewable products, the agricultural sector of the American economy would be
strengthened, American reliance on foreign oil could be reduced, and ultimately limited (regardless of
where the world actually resides on the peak production curve) hydrocarbon/fossil fuel resources could be
conserved. I discovered through a little internet research that, among other things, airplane windows were
made from milk-based plastic during World War II. The technology has existed to make more use of bio-
chemicals, but we have not until recently had a pressing need to investigate and expand their uses as
replacements for the much more commonly used hydrocarbon components of plastics.
With a modest amount of research, bio-chemicals would ease the pressure on fossil fuels that face
increasing supply and delivery problems. The world may not run out of oil for a while yet - and it may turn
out that we have not yet reached peak production - and we do have considerable coal and natural gas left,
but why not develop alternatives to nonrenewable resources now while there is time for careful, thorough
research and development. The United States is witnessing the building of large wind farms and other
alternative energy resources in anticipation of declining crude oil reserves. Plastics also need to shift to
renewable sources to avoid serious future dislocations caused by dwindling supplies during times of
increasing demand. The Obama Administration recognizes the need for research into the use of bio-
chemicals, offering research grants through the Department of Energy. American industry thus has
economic and financial incentives for researching a switch over from declining supplies to renewable ones.

Other articles in this series:

ST - 1 The End of the Rainbow (Observing the end of a natural rainbow close at hand)
ST - 2 Which Way Are We Going? (A possible flight aid used by geese and other birds)