Nova (1974–…): Season 48, Episode 3 - Indestructible - full transcript

The potential environmental impact of virtually indestructible versions of glass, rubber and plastic.

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What's it take to make our
modern world?

Ah!

That's amazing!

I'm David Pogue.

Join me on a high-speed chase

through the elements...

and beyond.

Oh, my God!

As we smash our way into
the materials,

molecules,

and reactions...



It's a really cool enzyme

because it makes life on Earth
possible.

That make the places we live,

the bodies we live in,

and the stuff we can't seem
to live without.

The only thing between me and
certain death...

is chemistry?

From killer snails...

Just when
you think you've heard of everything,

nature will surprise you.

And exploding glass

to the price a pepper-eating
Pogue pays.

There's got to be some easier
way to learn about molecules.

We'll dig into
the surprising way



different elements combine
together and blow apart.

In this hour,

we swing from the
molecular chains

and surf the atomic webs
that give some materials

unique abilities.

Ow...

The moldable molasses
of molten glass.

Come on!

The built-in boing of rubber.

The G-forces are indescribable.

And the menagerie
of modern plastics

that these days
is both a miracle...

Oh!

And a menace.

People want to do
the right thing,

but it's really difficult

to know exactly what to do.

"Beyond the
Elements: Indestructible"...

right now, on "NOVA."

Ah, the periodic table...

the "Who's Who" of atoms!

The stuff everything is made of

with familiar names like
hydrogen,

oxygen, carbon, and iron.

But what if every substance
were made

of just one kind of atom,
just one kind of element?

What if a human...

were made only of carbon?

What if water...

were made only of hydrogen?

And what if salt...

were made only of
poisonous chlorine?

Luckily, nearly all elements
like to stick together.

It's through the combination
of different elements

that our world exists.

And we've made it an even richer
place by learning to harness,

and even make those
combinations,

to create new materials that
have shaped our modern world,

such as rubber, or plastic...

materials we've come
to depend on

but that sometimes come

with difficult
environmental downsides.

But let's start
with one of the oldest

and most chemically interesting.

Look at the buildings in any
city today

and you'll see...
Or see through...

one of the signature materials
of our times:

Glass.

The Corning Museum of Glass
in Corning, New York,

is home to an internationally
famous collection of glass,

with examples that range
from antiquity

to contemporary art.

From the functional...

to the fantastic.

The museum also runs

demonstrations of glassblowing.

She's applying glass color
to that molten glass.

By holding it to the ground,

gravity takes hold and she gets
that beautiful ruffled edge.

Some include opportunities

for novices like me

to get into the act.

We're going
to be making something

we call a Roman bottle.

Good, keep going,

keep going...

all right, stop.

The kind of glass I'm working
with is the most common sort,

soda lime glass,

the stuff of windows, drinking
glasses, and glass bottles.

Give the pipe a tap...

Whoo-hoo!

I am good at this.

Eric Meek,

one of the hot glass
program managers,

breaks down the ingredients
in soda lime glass for me.

So these are the raw materials

that we use to make glass.

The first main ingredient is silica sand.

You can see this is a
beautiful white, pure silica sand.

This will make really
nice, clear glass for us.

Silica is a network
of silicon and oxygen atoms,

where each silicon atom
shares electrons

with neighboring oxygens,

in what are called
covalent bonds.

To get this to melt at a lower temperature,

we add soda ash, so
that's sodium carbonate.

Sodium carbonate...

two sodiums electrically
attracted to three oxygens

sharing electrons
with a carbon atom.

If we melted pure silica

it would melt nearly at 4,000 degrees.

If you add soda ash, it
drops the melting temperature

down to around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

So easier for us to bring about.

Easier for us to bring about.

And then the final ingredient over here

is crushed limestone, or calcium carbonate.

Like sodium carbonate...

but with a calcium instead.

Calcium carbonate will help

to stabilize the glass over time.
Wow!

And you just sort of
mix that up in a pot.

Yup. And put it over
a medium flame and...

It's that easy.

You mix these together,
put it in a crucible,

melt it at about 2,000 degrees
and you have glass.

At high temperatures,

all those powdery ingredients
melt together

to form a viscous liquid
that cools into glass.

But there's more to the story.

Most solids are crystalline,
like frozen water,

the ice in your glass.

In ice, the water molecules are
arranged in a regular pattern.

If we heat it to its melting
point,

ice quickly turns to liquid,

with water molecules sliding
past each other.

And then,
if we drop the temperature,

the water refreezes

and the regular crystalline
structure of ice returns.

Silica sand, the primary
ingredient in common glass,

typically also has a regular
crystalline structure.

As you heat it up, it too will
melt just like ice does,

more or less all at once
transitioning

from a solid to a liquid,
with the network of silicon

and oxygen atoms sliding
around chaotically.

But this is where glass
gets weird.

When you cool our liquid silica
down,

it doesn't find its way back
into a crystalline structure.

Instead, it becomes an
increasingly viscous liquid

with jumbled rings of atoms.

When it finally cools down
enough,

that warped irregular structure
becomes locked in place

into what's called
an amorphous solid.

The range of temperatures in
which glass remains

a viscous, goopy liquid
that we can manipulate

is one reason it’s such
an important material,

and has made possible the
amazing art of glassblowing.

When most of us talk about
glass,

we mean silica-based glass,

ordinary glass.

But glass is also the term
scientists use

for any material that exists as
an amorphous solid,

materials that,
unlike a crystal,

have an irregular structure,

and when heated
pass through a phase

that's not exactly liquid
and not exactly solid.

A phase I call... gooey.

So glass comes in many forms.

Eric Goldschmidt,

a flame worker,

demonstrates that glass doesn't
have to be, well, glass,

using a piece of hard candy.

And it actually acts a lot like glass

that we use out of our furnaces here.

So I'm softening
this material with some heat,

getting those atoms moving around,

and it simply will
never have the opportunity

to come back to
a crystalline network.

So we can soften it
a little bit.

Start to inflate it.

Start to inflate it?

Come on!

Dude, you're making a Roman
bottle out of a Jolly Rancher!

In theory, it can be
shaped into just about anything

because of its ability
to sort of transition

from really fluid to fairly,

fairly rigid.

Would this still taste
like candy?

I don't think

we've cooked the sweetness out of it.

Is it too hot?

It should be cool enough to touch.

Excuse me.

My gosh, I feel like
I'm eating the wrapper.

I've never had candy that light
and flaky.

And I don't think I’ve ever had anybody

eat a piece of glass that
I've inflated either.

This is gorgeous.

This is, this is clearly
going to be worth something.

Straight out.

Okay.
Yup, there you go.

Maybe if I stop talking and kept working.

There's an underappreciated
aspect of glassblowing

that I learned about firsthand.

Oh ho! There we
go, comes right off.

After you shape a piece of glass
while it's hot,

it has to cool slowly,

in an annealing oven

that gradually ramps
down the temperature.

For something this size,
it takes about 12 hours.

Otherwise differences
in thickness

mean differences in cooling,

leading to stresses...

That can cause the piece
to crack.

But what happens if you cool
some glass really fast?

Then, you get these:
Prince Rupert's drops,

named for Prince Rupert
of the Rhine,

who brought them to England
in 1660 as a scientific curiosity.

So I'm going to have you

take this hammer and
try to break this drop.

Are you nuts, it's glass?

All right, so just grab
it down here by the tail,

All right, and set it
down there on the table,

and just make sure you hit,

hit the thick end.
Just shatter it?

Yup.

Come on.

No!

Wow... I broke your table.

That's insane.

We've established that this
glass is indestructible.

Congratulations.

We have, but there is
an Achilles' heel.

There is a way to break this.

Considering this glass
just dented a steel table,

I'm... skeptical.

So snap it down in the tail.

This is me,

trying to snap off the tail

of this unbreakable glass.

What?

Where'd it go?

It's, it's gone!

What just happened?

Well, let's rewind a little...

...to the key moment.

When the drop of hot glass
enters the cold water...

the outside of the glass
immediately cools

and locks into shape,

but the inside cools more
slowly, gradually contracting,

trying to pull in the rigid
outside glass,

creating a tremendous amount
of stress,

placing the outer layer
under compression.

A lot of materials under compression

are very strong,
including glass.

So strong, you can't break it
with a hammer.

But there's an Achilles... tail.

Because that part is so thin,

when it enters the water, it
cools just about all at once.

No compression effect,
no super-strength,

I can break it with my hands.

And that surface fracture
races through

the rest of the
compressed material.

Once that compressive layer

is compromised, there's
so much energy in there,

the whole thing will crack.

Ka-blammo!

Total drop destruction!

Turns out,
the surprising strength

of a Prince Rupert's drop

plays a role in how we make
glass today.

Manufacturers take advantage

of the strength
of glass under compression,

to make a special kind
called tempered glass.

So this is a piece of commercial
tempered glass,

and rather than being cooled

with water, this one is just cooled

with jets of air on the surface.

The jets of air sort of make
the skin of the glass rigid,

and stiffens
the surface of the glass.

The core of this cross-section

is left to cool a little bit
more slowly,

and so it pulls away from the
surface

and that creates a compressive
layer on the surface.

So it's sort of
compressing itself

from the inside?

From the inside, exactly.

So then, what is this, like
Prince Rupert's sidewalk?

It may seem counterintuitive...

Every cell in my body is saying
this is a bad idea.

But by cooling the glass to
create compressive stress,

generally more than 10,000
pounds per square inch,

it becomes physically stronger...
I can walk...

Even jump on this tempered
piece that’s about a half-inch thick.

Oh, my gosh!

What?

They could make diving boards
out of this stuff.

Oh man!

Even pouring molten glass on it

doesn't make it shatter
immediately,

but give it a minute...

That's some
strong glass. It is.

Or four...

Oh man, that was cool!

It was like poof!

The molten glass finally
compromised the surface.

And all that built-in stress

broke up the entire sheet.

But the remaining shards
are relatively safe.

Because of that tension,

when it does break,

it breaks all the way out

to the very edge and it all
breaks into these little bits.

They make these
nice little cubes

that aren't nearly as dangerous as
a big, broken shard of glass.

The miracle of glass

is made possible in part
by the element silicon,

the second most-common element
in the earth's crust

after oxygen.

Silicon atoms have 14 electrons
arranged in three shells.

Because the outermost shell has
four electrons,

silicon can share those to form
up to four bonds

with other atoms.

But one thing that it doesn't
do well

is form a chain with other
silicon atoms,

to create a compound
with a silicon backbone.

It's just too reactive.

In water, the backbone easily falls apart.

The element with the best
ability to do that

sits just above silicon.

Carbon can also form up to four
bonds with other atoms

but luckily,
it can also form strong bonds

with other carbon atoms.

The result is not only you and
me, and all life on Earth,

but also a plethora of other
molecules and materials

that shape our lives

and can even put a bounce
in your step.

First up?

Rubber!

It turns out that more than half
of the world's rubber

ends up wrapped around
the wheels of vehicles...

motorcycles, trucks, and cars.

So I've come to a place that's
rolling in it...

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It's 11 days away

from the running of one of the
most

famous car races in the world,

the Indy 500.

The competing teams are here,
doing practice runs.

And some end better than others.

Before the teams hit the track,

some fortunate fans get a taste
of the race.

They get to ride in a specially
adapted two-seater Indy Car...

At the wheel, the legendary
champion, Mario Andretti.

He's one of the most successful

American drivers in the history
of the sport.

He's the only pro ever

to win the Indianapolis 500,

the Daytona 500, and the Formula
One World Championship.

And now, it's my turn...

Imagine riding
a roller coaster...

at over 180 miles an hour,

with no rails...

flying around the curves,
while wondering

why we're not
smashing into the wall.

I've had enough after
a couple of laps.

How do these drivers
do 200 of 'em?

Oh man, the G forces
are just indescribable.

I mean you're pressed against
the side

and then pressed
against the back.

And when he takes the curves,

I mean there's a concrete wall
coming at you, just...

So what's the secret ingredient
to staying alive out there?

To find out,

I head to the garage that
supplies the tires

in the weeks leading up
to the Indy 500.

In 2019, each team received

36 sets of tires

for practice, qualifying, and
the race... 6,000 tires in all.

It's also a chance to talk

to the expert himself.

What I was surprised at most was

the lateral forces obviously,
as a layman.

So is it, is it
the rubber that's keeping us

from flying into that wall?

That it-that's what it is.

That's, the tires are obviously

the most important aspect
of the race car.

These are the babies you
want to kiss after a run.

At speeds up to 230 miles
an hour, a driver experiences

about 5Gs of force
during the turns.

That's more than what an
astronaut experiences

during a space launch.

So you know the tires
take a beating.

Do you know enough about

the chemistry to know
what kinds of things

they can do to the compounds?

Like what sorts of things
do they add?

If they would tell me that,
they would have to kill me.

Hopefully,
that's not a blanket policy

because I've come to Akron,
Ohio, looking for some answers.

Harvey Firestone founded
the Firestone Tire

and Rubber company here in 1900.

Bridgestone Corporation
bought it in 1988,

becoming Bridgestone/Firestone.

This is one of its research
facilities.

And Laura Kocsis
is one of its scientists.

According to her,
it all starts with this.

I got to say, this feels rubbery.

And it... oh, man,
it's also stinky!

Yup, so that's natural rubber.

Oh, this is what comes out of the tree?

Yup, so it comes out
of the tree, we process it,

and it turns it into what you
have in your hands right now.

It becomes this.
Yes.

Natural rubber begins

as sticky, runny,
white liquid called latex.

It's found in more than 2,000
plants, including dandelions,

but most of the world's
natural rubber

comes from trees like these,

the Hevea brasiliensis, better
known as the rubber tree.

Natural latex is about 55% water

with particles
of rubber suspended in it.

And if you could zoom into one
of the particles...

you'd see it's like
a tangled bunch of spaghetti.

Each noodle is a long molecular
chain called a polymer.

To get to a polymer,
you start with monomers,

which is one chemical unit,
and that's represented by

these paperclips here.

This here is one chemical unit?

Yup, consider that
one chemical unit.

Meaning what... a molecule?

Yup, one molecule.

So for natural rubber, what,

what molecule
are we talking about?

So we're talking about isoprene.

Isoprene, okay.
Yes.

Here's what isoprene looks like:

it's a molecule with five
carbons bonded to each other

and to eight hydrogens.

In natural rubber,
isoprenes are bonded together,

one after another,
to make a chain... a polymer...

just like the chain of paper
clips Laura showed me.

Once you get to tens of
thousands of these units

linked together,
you end up with natural rubber.

- Oh, tens of thousands?
- Yup.

Okay.
Tens of thousands.

In their natural state,

the rubber polymer chains can
become easily entangled

as they coil up.

But when you stretch them out,

the chains straighten out

and align themselves in the
direction of the stretch.

Let them go,

and the molecules return back
to their coiled-up states,

giving rubber its signature

"boinginess."

So if it's rubber, it
should be a little boingy.

Yup, it's going to bounce.

Ah! Okay, that's,

that's very boingy.

I'm sure here at Bridgestone,

you use that as a
chemical property,

the boinginess.

Yes, very technical.

And... oh...

Oh, man.

Natural rubber is often an
ingredient in tires,

but it's not the only one.

Today, many tires include
synthetic rubber,

made out of other monomers

not found in latex.

Oh ho!

I'm sensing more polymers.

Yes.
More chains of molecules.

What do these represent?

So these are different
configurations of

polymers that we can make
in our laboratory.

Natural rubber is made of only
one type of monomer.

Here we can use different types

and bring them together with our
chemistry.

And each way of linking them together

produces different qualities in
the tire that will result?

Yup, so maybe the amount of
monomer can make a difference

in the properties,
how they're configured

can make a difference, and that’s
basically what we do here

is find different ways of
putting them together

so that we can achieve the
properties that we want.

Wow.

Natural rubber,
synthetic rubber,

turns out, there's even more
that goes into tire rubber.

Here in the test lab,

technicians mix all the
ingredients together.

Like carbon black and silica,

which reinforce the tire.

Another key ingredient
is sulfur,

element number 16
on the periodic table.

The resulting blob

then gets rolled into sheets...

cut into squares for testing,

and baked at high temperature

in a process called
vulcanization.

Charles Goodyear discovered
the process in 1839

when he accidentally spilled

a mixture of rubber and sulfur
on a stove.

He named it after Vulcan,
the Roman god of fire.

Cooking the rubber-sulfur
mixture

causes the sulfur
to chemically bond

the rubber's polymer chains
to each other,

forming crosslinks between them.

Bill Niaura, Bridgestone's
Director of Innovation,

shows me the result.

So this little bowtie, this was cut out of

one of those squares before vulcanization.

It was.

And this is what rubber
looks like after that vulcanization?

Correct.

So, the only difference between these two

is this one was super-heated for a while.

Correct. All right.

And according to you,
something property-wise has changed?

It has.

Why don't you take
the uncured one and stretch it.

All right, this guy.

Just pull it?

Oh, wow.

What you'll feel are the polymer
chains flowing apart,

it's acting like a liquid,
it's viscous.

It feels exactly like gum,
stretching gum.

And when you release
the force...

you'll see that it's flowed
apart and the energy

that you put in
has not been recovered

and the piece has been
permanently deformed.

I broke your rubber sample.

I'm okay with that.

With all the new ingredients,
our unbaked tire mixture

is far less boingy than the
rubber I saw in Laura's lab.

When you stretch it,

the mixture's loosely coiled
polymer strands

slide past each other
and keep on sliding.

Only weak interactions hold the
network of strands together,

so under stress, it pulls apart.

Okay, and then after
vulcanization, same test?

Indeed.

Oh, man,
it's much harder to pull.

And when you
release the force...

Oh!

You'll see that it's
recovered its original shape,

and that's a characteristic
of elasticity.

Stretch out this vulcanized
interconnected web of strands,

and instead of ripping apart,

the network springs back
to its original shape.

Right. It's a cross section.

But as Bill shows me,

with cross-sections
from different tires,

vulcanization doesn't just
connect up

individual rubber molecules,

it connects up everything
in the whole tire mixture.

As we cure the tires, we heat it.

That vulcanization reaction
not only cures the rubber

within a compound,

it cures across compounds

to connect all of that into,
into one unit.

In the end,
it's essentially one molecule.

- The whole tire?
- It is.

- The whole tire is a molecule?
- It is.

Well, how is that a molecule?

So a molecule

is a collection of atoms
that are chemically attached.

Yeah.

We've done that
through polymerization,

we've attached monomers
to make polymers,

and then through vulcanization,

we've attached the polymers
to make the finished product.

So I guess, therefore,
since this is all connected,

molecularly linked to molecularly linked,

it is one giant molecule?

It's beautiful.

Now that I know just how much
engineering goes into

those giant tire-shaped
molecules,

I have a new appreciation

for the rubber that keeps us all
on the road.

And for the people behind it,
like Cara Adams,

director of race tire
engineering and production

for Bridgestone/Firestone.

She oversees the race tire
operation, including Indy.

Although interviewing her at
the office turns out to be... tough.

One of the things that
you're trying to look at

with a race car is aerodynamics.

If you think about a tire,
those are the only

point of contact between the
cars and the ground out there.

That was a very small
four-inch wide rim so...

This is what you get for trying
to film at a racetrack.

Yes, exactly.

So we move to a somewhat
quieter place.

We think of car racing
as excitement, and adrenaline,

really cool.

How much actual science
is there to it?

Well, there's a lot
of science and chemistry

and that actually goes in
the tires.

So we have engineers
that work with physics

to make sure the tires are strong enough.

And then we have people that are
really smart in chemistry,

and they are actually able to
design those tread compounds

that are running at
240 miles per hour

and adhering to the ground.

It's really exciting.

So are you trying to tell me
that the only thing

between Mario and me and
certain death is chemistry?

Chemistry and physics, absolutely.

Both the natural rubber and
synthetic rubber used in tires

are elastomers, polymers with
elastic properties.

They allow tires to be
both flexible and durable...

...marvels of engineering.

But they have their limits.

So what if you need an elastomer
that can hold it together

no matter what you throw at it?

Michael Tidd from the company
LINE-X has invited me here,

a lift in a back lot in West
Springfield, Massachusetts,

to see an elastomer that can be
a protective coating.

The day begins

with a tale of two pumpkins.

Pumpkins seem like they are
already blessed

with a certain degree
of protection.

Nature has provided
a pretty good membrane

but I don't... I don't know if
it was in the original design

to drop it from 50 feet.

Well let's do a "scientifical" test.

We could always give it a try
and see what happens.

On three, ready?

One, two... One, two...

Three!

Well no surprise here...

It's... it's a squash vegetable
and a floor wax.

That was the control

of a uncoated pumpkin as
you would find them in nature, yes.

Now it's time for a pumpkin
covered with Michael's

protective LINE-X coating.

I have to say, it feels
a little bit like plastic.

It is a lot like plastic.

It has characteristics of plastic.

However, it is an elastomer,

which means it could be stretched,

but it will return
to its original shape.

Uh, let's see if this
has any better effect.

One, two, three!

The LINE-X-coated pumpkin

flexes to absorb the impact

then springs back into shape.

We try a few more
household objects.

This experiment is entitled
"When Pigs Fly".

Can you guess what will happen
to the egg when we drop it?

The flower pot's last moments.

And I run a few comparisons
myself...

Finally...
bringing out the big guns.

No way...

Okay I get it.

The stuff is tough.

But what's going on inside
that coating?

Did the objects survive intact?

Michael cuts open
our dropped pumpkin

to see the state of affairs...

It's pumpkin pudding!

A lot of damage.

So, the pumpkin is gone,
but the coating did just fine?

Correct

But when would you care about

not protecting the guts of something

but the outside is fine?

A lot of times,
we will put it on a membrane,

such as a wall or a floor

where we're trying to protect
what's on the other side.

Here's a test of that idea.

This simulated car bomb
blows down an exterior wall.

But with a coating of LINE-X
on the outside

and the inside of the wall...

...it becomes more of a dust-up.

So what is this stuff?

Well there's more than
one flavor of LINE-X,

but the coating on our
power pumpkins is the result

of a reaction between
two ingredients.

The first is a highly reactive
molecule.

At each end
of its carbon backbone,

there's a nitrogen, carbon,
and oxygen group

called an isocyanate that acts
like a hook to lock onto...

the second chemical ingredient.

It's a polyamine... a member of a
chemical group called resins.

LINE-X heats the two ingredients

and feeds them under pressure

to this sprayer,

which mixes them
just as they exit.

Immediately,
the first ingredient hooks on

to part of the resin,
and all those linkages create

long entangled polymer chains
similar to rubber

so that they're flexible
but also much tougher.

The resulting elastomer
is called a "polyurea"...

a cousin to the more familiar
polyurethanes.

So, that's the general idea,
though they tweak the chemistry

for different applications.

Most of LINE-X's
consumer business

is spray-on truck bedliners.

Not so much
for protecting produce

or making kid's toys last...
forever.

The main ingredients for LINE-X
and synthetic rubber

come from fossil fuels
like refined crude oil.

When we pump oil
from the ground,

it's a rich soup of molecules

built around that tinker toy
wonder element... carbon.

They come in chains, rings,
trees, and other shapes.

Refining separates those
molecules by kind,

and in some cases,
breaks up bigger ones,

turning them into smaller,
more useful molecules, like gasoline.

Refining also supplies industry
with the basic building blocks

for another group
of synthetic polymers

that came to dominate our way
of life in the 20th century...

Plastics.

Today, plastic is everywhere.

You can find it in tea bags...

ribbon...

the inside of paper coffee
cups...

sunscreen...

toothpaste...

sponges...

most clothing...

the fish you eat...

...and even salt.

Malika Jeffries-El plays with
the molecular building blocks

of plastic for a living.

She's a polymer chemist
at Boston University.

So clearly, there's all kinds of

different plastics,

but is there something

that unites them all that makes
a plastic a plastic?

Plastics are a subset
of polymers,

in that they're known not just
for having their

macromolecular structure

but the processing
and mechanical properties

that come from, as a result
of that structure.

Like bendy-ness and... Exactly.

Strength.Exactly.

Strength, exactly. Strength, flexibility,

rigidity would be another property.

Like rubber,
all plastics are polymers...

long molecules made up
of subunits called monomers.

What makes each of
these polymer-based materials distinct

are the combinations
of the different monomers

used to make them.

For example, this is
actually really hard and rigid,

and one of the units in here is styrene,

and this is polystyrene.

Not hard and rigid at all.

Not hard and rigid at all,

but when you blend in
the other molecules,

you get different properties.

Wow.

But it's not all chemistry.

Processing can turn
the same plastic

into very different products.

These were actually molded and
blown into this bottle shape,

and in this case,
really small fibers were spun

from the polymer and then
processed to make this.

And it comes out
soft and comfortable.

Comes out soft and comfortable.

Our Age of Plastics
isn't very old.

It was this guy, Leo Baekeland,
who gets credit

for the first fully synthetic
plastic.

He called it Bakelite,

and by the 1920s,
it had become a big hit

in all kinds of products...

from radios to kitchenware...

to kids' toys...

and coming in
a variety of colors.

Malika has offered to whip up
some of this landmark plastic.

It's made from two monomers:
phenol,

a ring of six carbon atoms
bonded to five hydrogens,

and an oxygen bonded
to a hydrogen;

and formaldehyde,

one carbon atom bonded
to two hydrogens

and double bonded to an oxygen.

After dissolving
the solid phenol

into the formaldehyde
solution...

Malika adds two acids
to start up the process.

Then we wait.

There should kind of be
this "a-ha" moment

and it should just go.

Are you saying
it's gonna harden?

Yeah, it should get cloudy

and polymer should come
crashing out.

I feel like it's getting pinker,

which is an indication that
the chemistry is changing.

Oh! Did you see that!?

Like instantaneously!

Right before our eyes,
the phenol and formaldehyde

molecules link up,
giving off water molecules

while creating
long polymer chains.

You made plastic!

Look at that.

Genuine, crusty, hard,

hard plastic.

So this is an example

of a thermoset plastic.

Once it's set into place
with heat,

you can't reform it

or reshape it
with additional heat.

Oh okay, so this... so
unlike a plastic drink bottle...

That's right.

...you can't melt this down and
reform it into something else.

No.

This is Bakelite now and forever.

That's stuck
like that forever, yup.

In a thermoset plastic
like Bakelite,

the bonds between the polymer
chains are extremely strong.

By the time you've applied
enough heat to break them,

the chains themselves
have decomposed.

So you can't re-melt
thermoset plastics

or reshape them for recycling.

But not all plastics
are thermoset.

There's nylon,

the first commercially successful
plastic that wasn't.

It came to public attention
at the 1939 World's Fair

as a substitute for silk
in women's stockings.

And its importance grew
during World War II.

At the time, the main source
of silk for parachutes

was America's enemy... Japan.

So the military recruited nylon
as a replacement.

Malika offers me some firsthand
experience making nylon.

If you want to make nylon,
don't you need, like a factory?

Well if you want to
make a lot of nylon, yeah,

then you're going to need a factory.

But if we're just going to do a demo,

we're going to make a little
bit of nylon and we can do it

in a little beaker.
All right, like for...

for mouse stockings.

Yes, exactly.

To do this we're going to mix
together two chemicals.

There are lots of variations
on nylon.

Our two key components
will be two molecules that are

simpler than they sound...

hexamethylenediamine

and adipoyl chloride.

Since they each have
a six-carbon chain...

we're making what's called
Nylon 6,6.

So the first
thing we’re going to do is we're going

to add the hexamethylenediamine.

So mostly colored water.

Mostly colored water

- with some cool organics in there.
- All right.

And then we're going
to add our organic layer

of the adipoyl chloride solution.

And because the density of this

is less than that of the water,

it should float

on the surface of the water.

Kind of like oil and vinegar.

Where the two liquids meet,

the molecules
of the hexamethylenediamine

and adipoyl chloride link up,

one after another, releasing
hydrogen chloride as a gas.

Malika gives me the honor

of pulling the newborn nylon
polymer out of the beaker.

And as more of the two liquids
come into contact,

they make more nylon.

Do you have a ladder, Malika?

There you go.
Look at that.

Freshly baked, free-range nylon.

Amazingly,

this really is a junior version
of how bulk nylon

is manufactured.

All right...

anyone need stockings?

Unlike Bakelite,

nylon is an example
of a thermoplastic,

which we can reheat and reform.

That's the basis of some
plastic recycling.

Malika wants to show me
one more example.

And this time what are we
going to make?

Um, so for this demonstration I
thought I would show you

how we make polyurethane foams.

And what do we use
polyurethane foam

for in the world?

Polyurethane is used in
like seat cushions, uh...

and also insulation.

You think about like blown foam
and things like that.

Oh yeah.

E.T. blown foam.

Yeah, I remember that.

There are two key reactants.

First up is a type of molecule
with an oxygen-hydrogen hook

at either end.

Aside from its role
in polyurethanes,

this one shows up

in paintballs

and laxatives too.

The other reactant
we've already met at LINE-X...

that carbon-backboned
isocyanate molecule

with the nitrogen/carbon/oxygen
hooks at either end.

And we stir this together.

And so you can already
see it’s starting to react

because it's starting to get

milky and it's starting
to grow in size.

You can see it's rising up
a little bit.

The two molecules begin
to link up to form

a polyurethane polymer.

At the same time,

one ingredient also reacts
with some water

generating carbon dioxide gas.

That's what causes the bubbling

and ultimately the foam when
the polyurethane grows rigid.

I know I'm tacky but...

Oh!

And the cup's entombed
inside there.

Yeah, the
cup is... the cup is gone.

Pretty cool,
but it's just a start.

Because when in foam...

do as the... Foam-mans do?

There we go...

Years of snowman training.

We'll open a 529 plan,
we'll buy some diapers...

Nothing but the best for you.

He has your smile.

At this point...

Polycarbonate.

You're probably getting
the idea.

Polyethylene terepthalate...

P.E.T.E.

That there are lots of
different plastics...

Polyvinylchloride...

PVC.

Each made out of polymers...

These are examples of polyamides.

Commercially known as nylon.

Constructed sort of
the same way...

Polystyrene.

But out of different subunits...

Polypropylene... PP.

To obtain very different
material properties.

Low-density polyethylene...

LDPE.

And then if you start throwing
in additives and fillers...

Polyvinylalcohol...

PVA.

Like colorants...

High-density polyethylene...

HDPE.

Flame retardants,
glass, or carbon fibers...

Polymethylmethacrylate...

PMMA.

You end up with
tens of thousands

of grades of plastic...

Polyoxymethylene...

P.O.M.

each tailored for
a specific purpose.

Which has created the problem...

what do we do with them
when that job is finished?

Mostly, we throw them out.

91% of all the plastic we make
ends up in landfills...

or burned...

...or just escapes
into the environment.

The remaining 9% is recycled.

But first, the plastic has to be
carefully separated by type,

those recycling number symbols.

Any mix-up there can contaminate
an otherwise reusable plastic,

rendering it worthless.

And there aren't many places
willing to do

that separating work.

In 2018, China stopped accepting
shipments

of bulk unsorted plastic
from the U.S.,

or anywhere else in the world.

With the economics of recycling
in turmoil,

lately the discussion
has shifted to single-use plastics,

about half of all the plastic
we produce.

Much of it is food related.

To learn more, I travel
to the University of Georgia

to meet Jason Locklin,
a chemistry professor

and the director of its
New Materials Institute.

Well, thanks for meeting me
here, Jason.

I brought you breakfast. All right!

Well, breakfast and a bag
of single-use problems.

This is called

a clamshell container.

Less than 1% of all polystyrene
is recycled globally.

If this makes its way
into the landfill,

which is exactly where it'll go,

it'll persist there forever.

We have a plastic straw.

It'll stay there for hundreds,
if not thousands, of years.

Is that really a way

to design packaging... to
have a material that you use

for ten seconds,

and then it goes to a landfill
for a thousand years?

Even packaging
that looks recyclable,

like paper takeout containers,
may not be because...

well, they have to hold food.

If you put food into

a paper towel, what happens to it?

It's going to get soggy
and fall apart.

Exactly.

So, in order to make
this a takeout container,

we have to coat it with plastic.

It essentially prohibits
our ability to recycle it.

Wow.

So is there any solution

to that problem? So here's just an example.

If you pull the film off that plastic,

this is about what it looks like.

But this film is made out
of a material called PHA.

PHAs...

polyhydroxyalkanoates...

are a type of plastic produced
from polymers harvested

from certain bacteria.

For the bacteria,

the polymers are essentially
kind of like fat,

a way to store energy.

But, because they come
from bacteria,

PHAs have a huge advantage.

They're completely
biodegradable.

Researchers in Jason's lab
are among several scientists

and companies around the world
developing

a PHA-based coating
that could replace

the traditional plastics

that often make our take-out
boxes unrecyclable.

Although the cost of PHAs
still needs to come down

to be competitive.

And finally, what does
Jason think about that

eco-friendly-looking green bag
I brought breakfast in.

This is a great example of
some absolute green washing.

"Biodegradable."

You see it in big, bold claims.

If you read the fine print,

it says, "49.28% biodegradation
in 900 days"

"under non-typical conditions.

No evidence of further
biodegradation."

Come on!

That sounds like a total scam.

But look at the size
of the green leaves!

That makes me feel good about
myself... it has a leaf on it.

This is simply adding
to the confusion

of people like yourself,
people in the general public,

that want to do the right thing.

This makes it really difficult to
know exactly what to do.

Oh!

When it comes to creating
new materials,

we may be the victims
of our own success.

It was like poof!

We've invented some that are
useful and so durable...

that they last more than
a human lifetime.

And now we're drowning in them.

But attitudes are changing

with engineers and chemists
harnessing

biology to combat the problem.

In the end, the human ingenuity
that helped create

the current crisis

may help solve it as well.

The only thing between me and
certain death is chemistry?

As we move
"Beyond The Elements."

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