GreenBiz Group — Adapted from the VERGE Weekly newsletter, published Wednesdays.
When it comes to innovation, Google’s parent Alphabet probably wins the headline race, but IBM has it way beat when it comes to racking up U.S. patents.
In early January, the 107-year-old company revealed it was awarded more than 9,100 patents in 2018. That’s more than any other company — and that’s a distinction IBM has claimed for 26 consecutive years.
Most of IBM’s contemporary awards are related to developments in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity and, of course, one of my favorite geek-topics, the blockchain. (The latter underlies an IBM service related to food supply chain safety and traceability, a matter for a future column.) But sometimes IBM’s research strays into some unexpected areas.
Exhibit A is a plastics recycling process announced early this month that IBM scientists have christened VolCat, short for volatile catalyst. The reaction uses heat and ethylene glycol in a reactor — think pressure cooker, one that operates at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius — to “digest” polyesters and separate out monomers in the form of a white powder that can be used to make new plastics. That material, IBM suggests, can be fed back into the plastic manufacturing so it can be reborn.
As anyone can tell you, the plastic industry is hungry for new recycling approaches that can scale up to handle the world’s big cleanup, recovery and reuse challenge. Processes based on chemistry or biology, rather than mechanical sorting and separation, will be imperative considering the 8 million tons of plastics finding their way into oceans every year.
VolCat draws on a process known as catalysis, which helps speed up chemical reactions. The project started out as an experiment by researchers focused on supporting IBM’s storied expertise in semiconductor materials and fabrication. It’s the same group that several years ago discovered an “endlessly recyclable” polymer that could play a crucial role in promoting reuse. The team was exploring ways to improve the semiconductor production and polymer recovery process. “IBM has a great interest in polymers,” Allen said.
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