The Second Green Revolution

We are witnessing the start of a second Green Revolution.

We are witnessing the start of a second Green Revolution. The first one, in the 1960s, involved the breeding of more productive food crops that would feed the Third World. The second Green Revolution will be about chemicals and plastics from plants to replace ever-more-expensive, non-renewable fossil fuels. The father of the first Green Revolution, Iowa-born Dr. Norman Borlaug, a former DuPont scientist, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his agricultural research in 1970. I don’t know whether any Nobels will be given for creating plastics from corn, potatoes, sugar cane, or soybeans. But no one will be able to say the plastics industry never did anything for the environment.

Both our feature articles this month—the cover story on “green plastics” and the report on new materials at K 2007—bear witness to the rapid proliferation of thermoplastics made from vegetable starches, oils, and fatty acids, as well as bacterial fermentation of plant starches and sugars. Earlier articles have relayed similar developments in thermoset polyesters and polyurethanes. And there’s lots more going on. In 2007, Dow Chemical reported that glycerine from vegetable oil can be used to make propylene glycol—an important precursor for unsaturated polyesters—and epichlorohydrin for making epoxies. Just last month, Cargill (owner of PLA producer NatureWorks) announced that it is working with a biotech firm to produce acrylic acid (precursor of various acrylate polymers) by fermentation.

And it’s not just plastics. The whole synthetic chemicals industry is looking toward biotech and renewable resources to unshackle itself from petrochemicals. DuPont, for example, was cited in the New York Times as making 10% of its products from non-petrochemical substances, a figure it wants to raise to 25% by 2010. We’re even seeing a car company like General Motors investing in making ethanol fuel from crop waste, wood chips, and garbage.

In researching this month’s cover story, Senior Editor Jan Schut was struck by the scary sense of urgency in the voices of executives of large chemical companies, even those that belong to oil companies. Oil is running out, they said, and faster than you think. The fast-developing populations of China and India will put a strain on the world’s oil resources. Biotech and agri-chemistry are the way forward.