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A Material Matter

November 26, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 48

First, congratulations to Maureen Rouhi on her new position. I look forward to reading her editorials.

I recently sent the following letter to China’s ambassador to the U.S., and it occurred to me that it may be of interest to C&EN readers. This is, after all, a materials problem, and great progress in synthesizing polymer-mineral composites has been made in recent years. Are people working on this? Can we draw attention to the potential opportunity? Comments would be appreciated.

Dear Ambassador Zhang Yesui:

I am writing to you on a matter of mutual interest and urgency. This deals with the slaughter of elephants in Africa to provide ivory, which largely goes to China. A recent New York Times article described the ever-increasing rate of their killing, which threatens the extinction of this marvelous creature.

I have a proposal for a win-win approach to this problem—synthetic ivory! As a professor of polymer chemistry, I am aware that your country’s scientists in this area are world-class. Chemically speaking, ivory is a biopolymer/mineral compound. Great progress in this area is being made and could be taken advantage of. I would urge your government to establish a research program to make synthetic ivory from either petroleum sources or renewable sources. Since the street price of ivory is currently estimated at $2,000 per kg, the synthesis could involve sophisticated chemistry and still be economically viable. We could even visualize synthetic ivory with properties superior to the natural material and lacking its flaws.

If your government put synthetic ivory on the market, along with a public information campaign about the current savagery, it would surely go a long way to minimize the demand for the natural material. The proceeds from selling the synthetic material could go to defray the cost of the research program.

The solution I have outlined is analogous to the fur problem, where synthetic fur has substantially met the demand.

Your government would score a great public relations coup by carrying out the program I have outlined, gaining stature with environmentalists worldwide.

I hope that you will give this matter serious attention. Perhaps you can refer me to the appropriate scientific authorities for further discussion.

H. K. Hall Jr.



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