Profile: Pushing Forward the Evolution of Plastics | AIChE

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Profile: Pushing Forward the Evolution of Plastics


Ting Xu

Ever since plastics entered everyday life, the variety of plastics that humans have been able to create has seemed limitless. Plastics can be ductile or rigid, durable or single-use, and made into various shapes, sizes, and colors. And yet nearly all plastics share a few inconvenient characteristics: they don’t readily degrade, they are difficult to recycle, and, when they do degrade, they generate microplastics that now permeate nearly every ecosystem on earth. These are the problematic characteristics that Ting Xu, a professor at the Univ. of California, Berkeley’s Dept. of Materials Science & Engineering and Dept. of Chemistry, has sought to address.

Xu’s work in biodegradable plastics has won her and her team many accolades, including the 2021 Create the Future Design Contest Grand Prize and the 2022 Falling Walls Award in Engineering and Technology. These plastics feature embedded enzymes that, when initiated by a chemical trigger, begin consuming polymer strands from end to end, a mechanism reminiscent of slurping spaghetti. This method of polymer degradation avoids the creation of microplastics, and it builds sustainable end-of-life disposal into the plastic’s composition.

Xu is quick to connect sustainability in her work with her appreciation...

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