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The College of Arts Sciences

The mystery of the disappearing orange peels

October 19, 2016

The following is adapted from a series published by the National Science Foundation for National Chemistry Week.

I got the call on a Thursday morning. The gentleman seemed to be concerned about missing rubbish, and when he said he was none other than Oscar J. King from Indian River Valley in Florida, complaining that his orange peels had gone missing, I thought someone took me for a fool.

But, as Oscar continued on, I soon learned that the bushels and bushels of discarded citrus peels from his groves of oranges and grapefruits had indeed gone missing. Oscar insisted the industry had come a long way from merely composting peels for agricultural use. Citrus peels were in feedstocks, and even the oils were extracted for many household cleaning products.

Over the past few weeks, he had first noticed a bushel or two of the peels disappear as they laid in wait for those processes to occur. More recently, the thievery had escalated to the point where he was sure it wasn’t just his imagination.

He had a sneaking suspicion, someone had found a more profitable way to use the peels, and he wanted his cut of the profits.

Moments later I was dialing my good friend, Cornell’s Geoffrey Coates, the chemist, whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Indeed, he confirmed, some anonymous science philanthropist had been sending him bushels upon bushels of citrus peel for his research that makes polymers using limonene oxide from citrus peel and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

“Almost every plastic out there – from the polyester in clothing to the plastic in food packaging and electronics – uses petroleum as a building block,” my good friend explained. “We figured a biodegradable, recyclable replacement would be a very good alternative. So far, no one has soured on the idea.”

Unfortunately, we never tracked down the orange peel pilferer. And Oscar, upon hearing of the research and the eventual impact this basic chemistry research might have in even his own packaging options, happily now shares his juicing byproducts with the chemists, reportedly saying, “This is just one of those times that the juice is most definitely worth the squeeze.”

Inspector Avogadro Mole