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A greener and more-efficient way of making nylon set out in a recent paper could cut production costs, benefiting the developing nations that make and use the material.

Nylon is widely manufactured around the world, but current industrial production methods are responsible for five to eight per cent of global anthropogenic emissions of nitrous oxide, which depletes the atmosphere’s ozone layer and has a greenhouse effect.

“There are many fantastic technologies that have the potential to revolutionise production processes, but the patents are owned by multinational companies in the developed world.”

Scott Kelly, Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research 

The new technique, developed by scientists from National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, promises to reduce harmful chemical emissions by using bubbles of ozone gas and ultraviolet light to produce adipic acid, a precursor to nylon.

“This new process produces next to no nitrous oxide gas and is far less energy demanding, but has higher overall reaction mass efficiency than the current industrial nitric acid oxidation process,” says head researcher Kuo Chu Hwang.

According to Hwang, the low energy demand means the new process is also far more economical than traditional methods as it requires less energy — the process can be carried out at room temperature compared to the much higher temperatures needed for the traditional process —  and a lower volume of chemicals to produce the same amount of nylon.

As adipic acid is a key component for making plastics and polyurethane as well as nylon, developing nations could benefit from a more cost-effective approach that minimises pollution.

Nylon production is high in South-East Asia and Bangladesh, but China is fast becoming the biggest producer and consumer of nylon products. According to the Taiwan Man-Made Fibre Industries Association, China produced more than 1.4 million tonnes of nylon in 2009.

But gaining access to this new technology could pose a challenge if developing countries are to “leapfrog from old dirty technologies that were the cornerstone of industrial development in the West”, says Scott Kelly of the Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

“There are many fantastic technologies that have the potential to revolutionise production processes, but the patents are owned by multinational companies in the developed world, and they are often reluctant to allow this technology to be used without an expensive licensing arrangement,” he says.

“Often the licensing fees are too expensive and old existing technologies are used by developing countries in order to minimise costs.”

The study was published last month (19 December) in Science.


Science doi: 10.1126/science.1259684 (2014)