Coates wins 2022 Eni Award for environmental solutions in chemistry

Geoffrey Coates, the Tisch University Professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, has won the 2022 Eni Award for Advanced Environmental Solutions for his innovations in sustainable materials, including “benign polymers” and renewable resources.

A global prize in the fields of energy and the environment, the 2022 Eni Awards will be presented by Italian president Sergio Mattarella in Rome this fall.

Coates develops sustainable ways of making and recycling plastics. In recent research, the Coates Group has discovered ways to manufacture chemically recyclable plastics, mechanically recyclable plastics, photodegradable plastics, and biodegradable plastics from renewable raw materials.

“Society’s heavy reliance on plastics and other synthetic polymers strains ecosystems and the environment. Professor Geoff Coates is addressing those critical problems by developing more sustainable materials,” said Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His innovations exemplify the bold, far-reaching and impactful research efforts in the College of Arts and Sciences that ensure Cornell’s leadership in tackling urgent global challenges.”

Through his work, Coates “has been instrumental in facilitating the development of scientific and technological solutions to minimize the negative environmental impact of polymeric materials and plastics,” the award committee said. Discoveries on all four of his research fronts are being pursued industrially.

“I was very surprised but of course excited to hear I had been selected for this award, which recognizes the work of the Coates Group over the last 25 years,” Coates said.

Although recycling is a promising method to limit the negative end-of-life impact of plastics, impurities and degradation diminish the usefulness of recycled plastics, Coates said. In the area of chemically-recyclable plastics, he is developing a new class of high-performance plastics that can be recycled to their original monomer. To improve mechanical recycling of plastics, Coates is developing ways to form useful alloys of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which make up nearly two-thirds of the world’s post-consumer plastic.

Almost all current plastics come from non-renewable fossil fuels and persist for centuries if left in the environment, Coates said.

“Perhaps the most important objective of the plastics field is to develop a new class of cost-effective, biodegradable plastics form renewable chemical feedstocks,” Coates said. Working toward this objective, the Coates Group has made a degradable polymer from carbon monoxide and ethylene oxide.

Another daunting problem for society is plastic debris in the oceans, much of it made of fishing nets, ropes and lines. Coates is developing plastic fibers that are strong enough to be used in fishing but will cleanly degrade in sunlight to non-toxic materials.

One of three main prizes, the Eni Award for Advanced Environmental Solutions award is dedicated to research on the protection of air, water and land and the remediation of industrial sites.

Other 2022 main prizes include: the Energy Transition Award, celebrating the best innovation for decarbonizing the energy system; and the Energy Frontiers Award for research on renewable energy sources and energy storage. Winners were also named in categories awarding young researchers and revolutionary projects.

Established in 2007, the Eni Award is sponsored by Italian energy company Eni to stimulate research in the fields of energy and the environment.

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