A recent report from the European Patent Office (EPO) - Patents for tomorrow’s plastics: Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources - provides an in-depth review of patenting trends across various aspects of polymer-related technologies that can help guide us towards a more sustainable future.
It is, of course, important to reduce our reliance on plastics, but the report recognises that plastics are an essential material for many industries – not least in the health sector where the recent pandemic has seen an exponential increase in the use of PPE, testing kits, etc. (all relying on plastics). Innovation in recycling technologies and alternative plastics has a critical role to play as we move towards a more sustainable society.
Bio-sourced monomers constituted one of the fastest-growing fields within the alternative plastics sector and is one of those closest to fundamental research (the proportion of filings in this field originating from universities was 20.7% in the years 2010-2019).
I was reminded of this statistic when reading a recent article about a new class of sustainable polymers devised by a team of scientists from the University of Birmingham and Duke University.
The monomers (isoidide and isomannide) used in these polymers are derived from sugar alcohols rather than the fossil-fuel derived monomers found in conventional polymers. The two compounds are stereoisomers of each other (i.e. they each have a specific 3D arrangement of atoms in space) and this has resulted in the two monomers providing polymers with different physical properties. They can also be used in combination to create copolymers or polymer blends – allowing the team to control their mechanical properties and degradation.
The article finishes with a mention that the academic collaborators have recently filed a patent application and are looking for industrial partners to licence the technology. It looks like the upward filing trend in this sector is set to continue into the next decade.