Due to recent scientific discoveries, it looks like changing a diaper may actually become a cleaner endeavor — at least with regard to manufacturing. Scientists led by Wesley Bernskoetter of Brown University have found a way to sustainably and economically develop acrylate, a chemical found in diapers, by using carbon dioxide. Acrylate is a chemical that is used to create the super absorbent material that lines polyester fabrics and diapers, and the researchers set out to improve the way acrylate is produced. As explained by Live Science, “The polymer [acrylate] forms is one of the components in diapers, along with the polyethylene in their outer layer, that makes them resist degradation in landfills.” Billions of tons of the polymer is produced each year, and it is currently made by heating propylene found in crude oil. By using strong acid and carbon dioxide, the new process could completely reinvent the way that diapers are manufactured — leaving an immeasurably lighter carbon bumprint on the planet.
Scientists have been working to find a cheaper and more environmentally friendly means of creating acrylate since the 1980’s. Bernskoetter and his team were able to make the polymer by mixing carbon dioxide with ethylene gas and a metal catalyst and then combining the resulting compound with a Lewis acid. The researchers hope to ramp up this new method to an industrial scale, adjusting the strengths and levels of the Lewis acid and possibly finding a renewable biomass source to make the ethylene.
“What we’re interested in is enhancing both the economics and the sustainability of how acrylate is made, right now everything that goes into making it is from relatively expensive, nonrenewable carbon sources.” said Bernskoetter.
Diaper chemistry is a surprisingly lucrative field. As the industry earns about $2 billion a year, the potential payload is certainly sizable. For other recent innovations in diaper manufacturing, see our recent post: Scientists in Finland Invent Biodegradable Diapers Made From Recycled Cardboard.