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Posted: November 29, 2007

Nanotechnology's rear view mirror

(Nanowerk News) The New York Times today carries an article that deals with the recent Cornell University research describing how blending nanoscale particles of clay into a biodegradable plastic made it stronger yet quicker to decompose in compost ("New Biodegradable Polyhydroxybutyrate/ Layered Silicate Nanocomposites").
The article says that nanotechnology is often spotlighted for the novel things it has produced or may produce in the future by rearranging the molecular structure of everyday building blocks like metals and plastics. But nanotechnology might also revive some products given up as lost causes.
Few readers are likely to recognize the plastic in the study — a polymer called polyhydroxybutyrate — or remember the futile attempts of one of the world’s biggest chemical companies to commercialize it. The plastic, better known as PHB, is made by some bacteria to store energy, just the way humans turn sugar into fat.
During the 1970’s, a British chemical giant called Imperial Chemical Industries invested heavily in developing methods to ferment plastic-making bacteria. I.C.I. saw the bacteria as a hedge against sky-rocketing prices for the oil it used to make polyethylene and other plastics. Eventually, it was able to produce enough PHB to give it a brand name — Biopol.
The article aks, even if this partcular research that does not work out, doesn’t it seem likely that there will be commercial failures from the past that get a second chance as nanotechnology matures?
Source: The New York Times
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