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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Geoffrey Coates, 33

Cornell University

It’s hard to imagine a better raw material for plastics than carbon dioxide. It’s cheap, non-toxic and ubiquitous. There’s one problem, though: It’s very stable and difficult to engage in chemical reactions. But Geoff Coates has invented a zinc-based catalyst that can make polycarbonates (a common plastic usually made from petroleum-based chemicals) using carbon dioxide as a starting point. The reaction is far more efficient than commercial poly- carbonate processes, and the resulting plastic is biodegradable.

This particular reaction may not revolutionize plastics production.

After all, the low cost of oil makes it tough for other feed stocks to compete, even one as inexpensive and omnipresent as carbon dioxide. Yet there is little doubt Coates' impact will be felt in coming years in the chemical industry. That industry has long relied on discovering catalysts through laborious trial-and-error methods. One of Coates' ambitions is to rationally design catalytic structures to produce desirable polymers. "My dream," he says, "is to be able to sit at a computer and design a catalyst, then go to the lab and make it."

If he’s able eventually to make that dream come true, the result could be more efficient manufacturing processes--and at the same time a cleaner environment. The future of the chemical industry will turn on whether it can meet both criteria. Look for Geoff Coates to help it.

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