Plastics clogging up our landfills and polluting our oceans are a scourge of modern life and we struggle with ways to combat this growing problem. The biggest issue is that most plastics are simply not biodegradable. Polyethylene, the common plastic found in shopping bags and numerous other products, takes between 100 and 400 years to degrade in a landfill.
We recently brought you the rediscovery story of cave squeakers. These tiny frogs, known for their high-pitched whistling calls, were native to the mountainous region of eastern Zimbabwe but had not been seen since 1962. That all changed in late 2016, when researchers found four cave squeakers, confirming that after 58 years the species was not extinct. Cave squeakers remain critically endangered according to the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species.
Car tires are generally considered environmentally unfriendly because they are predominantly made from fossil fuels. Natural rubber is generally not used anymore; most tires are made from isoprene, which is chemically very like rubber but is produced by thermally breaking apart molecules in petroleum in a process called cracking. The isoprene is separated out and purified and then reacted to form the artificial rubber that is the major component in car tires. The tires eventually end up discarded in giant piles that represent one of our biggest waste disposal problems.
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee were trying to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn carbon dioxide into a useful fuel. But the unexpected occurred: they found that the first step in their process actually got the job done all by itself. The reaction turns CO2 into ethanol, which is already used to power generators and vehicles.