The Intern Diaries: Derek Saxon

Derek SaxonDerek Saxon is a junior chemistry major from Iron Mountain, Michigan. He is conducting research this summer on biopolymers with Professor Dean Katahira of the Chemistry Department at Ripon College as part of his involvement with the McNair Scholars Program. He is one of four Ripon College students sharing their stories of research internships and jobs over the course of this summer.

So what in the world is a polymer? And why should the entire globe be interested in them?

Polymers are all around us, whether they are natural or synthetic. Plants, such as trees, use networks of these polymers in order to grow so tall and not fall over. We, as humans, use them every single day. Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, garbage bags, CDs, packaging and clothing are just some of the things used by people on a daily basis.

Polymer productsSynthetic polymers use a petroleum feedstock and each year about 4% of the world’s petroleum is converted into polymer materials. Two problems with this: 1) petroleum is a non-renewable resource and 2) it is very difficult to dispose of or recycle. It is estimated that typical plastic materials will stay in a landfill for hundreds of years before being broken down (and into chemicals potentially harmful to the environment). Almost 52 million tons of polymer waste was produced and a “negligible” amount was recovered or recycled in 2010 according to the EPA. So all of that waste is sitting in landfills across the country; and this is a problem throughout the world, not just in America.

dumping groundSo how do we fix this? We enter into a new generation of biodegradable polymers, which can be recycled (if we wish) or broken down naturally in the environment if they end up in a landfill somewhere. These new polymers will use a natural feedstock known as biomass, which is just a fancy name for all of the biological waste compiled into a heap. Because these materials begin from a natural feedstock, the potential to be broken down naturally by microbes (bacteria) is high. When this happens, the materials are degraded into water and carbon dioxide, neither of which are harmful to our environment. The science behind these biopolymers can be applied to other areas as well, such as biofuels, which can ultimately help our environment.

This global issue needs to be addressed; the longer we wait, the more problems these materials are going to cause. Research needs to be carried out to find a solution, which is exactly what I plan on doing.

To read more from Derek and our other summer bloggers, click HERE.

To learn more about the McNair Scholars Program at Ripon College, click HERE.


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