Inorganic Chemist Kim Renee Dunbar Helps Readers Understand How New Polymer Will Improve the Environment

Kim Renee Dunbar

May 19, 2020

Kim Renee Dunbar with students

Inorganic Chemist Kim Renee Dunbar Helps Readers Understand How New Polymer Will Improve the Environment  

Kim Renee Dunbar with studentsDistinguished Professor of Chemistry Kim Renee Dunbar describes the recent breakthrough from Cornell University that will help rid plastic pollution from the ocean.

Texas A&M University has gained an international reputation for excellence especially in the field of science where leaders like Kim Renee Dunbar unveil monumental discoveries in areas such as inorganic chemistry. Below, she helps readers understand how a new polymer developed by Cornell University brings us closer than ever to ridding the ocean of plastic waste.

According to studies on pollution from institutions across the globe, the human impact on the ocean through plastics has the potential to devastate natural ecosystems. Millions of tons of plastic are produced each year with only a small fraction being successfully recycled (some studies suggest around 10%). Much of what’s left ends up in the ocean, which is then ingested by fish and other aquatic life.

“Plastics don’t decompose in the ocean on their own, and they usually end up just breaking into smaller pieces, which makes the problem even more difficult to contain,” says Kim Renee Dunbar. “The recipe we use for plastics today makes bottles and packaging extremely durable but hard to break down. Many plastics can last for hundreds of years in the ocean, breaking up into microscopic bits that float in the water or settle on the seafloor.”

Plastic debris can end up being ingested by a variety of marine life since it often appears like a natural food source. This causes harmful side effects in the animals, and the plastics often stay inside their digestive systems meaning potentially negative side effects for people who eat these animals.

“Cornell University has developed a novel polymer that is able to degrade with ultraviolet radiation, meaning we can hopefully begin to correct the damage we’ve done to ecosystems around the world,” says Dr. Kim R Dunbar. “Fishing nets are one of the most hazardous plastic products in the ocean today, and this new polymer will be able to replace current materials while retaining the mechanical properties that are required of commercial fishing gear.”

Plastic products based off this new polymer can degrade naturally with time, reducing the amount of plastic surviving in the ocean. The Cornell research team behind the discovery, Kim Renee Dunbar tells us, spent 15 years developing the new polymer, which is known as isotactic polypropylene oxide, or iPPO. The polymer chain links in iPPO degrade down to a quarter of their initial length after about a month of exposure to UV light.

“The goal of the Cornell group and scientists around the world is to eventually leave no trace of the polymer in the environment, and we’re closer than ever to a universal solution to plastic pollution,” says Kim Renee Dunbar.