Akron, OH

University of Akron's Polymer scientist has devised a new method to crack the plastic sustainability problem

Paul Krasinic

AKRON, OH - Dr. Junpeng Wang, an assistant professor in the University of Akron's School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, has discovered a program to minimize waste and pave the road for a more sustainable future that will appeal to the rubber, tire, automotive, and electronics industries.

In recent years, plastics have come a long way in terms of sustainability thanks in large part to scientific advancements. However, although plastics are becoming increasingly environmentally friendly, the world continues to be contaminated due to company's reliance on them for their commonly used products.

Recently, Wang received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which will help him continue his work.

The current problem is that synthetic polymers, such as rubber and plastics, are commonly used in everyday life. Synthetic polymers' prominence is largely due to their outstanding mechanical characteristics and versatility. However, because of their long durability, waste materials made of these polymers have accumulated on land and in the oceans, posing major ecological hazards.

Furthermore, because over 90% of these polymers are made from unrenewable natural resources such as petroleum and coal, if they cannot be recycled and reused, the production of these materials is unsustainable.

To create a circular usage of resources, one potential way of addressing the problems of plastics sustainability is to replace present polymers with recyclable ones. Despite the advances made so far, few recyclable polymers have the same high heat stability and mechanical performance as standard polymers.

The recyclable materials Wang and his colleagues developed have outstanding thermal stability and varied mechanical qualities, making them one-of-a-kind. “Olefin Metathesis–Based Chemically Recyclable Polymers Enabled by Fused-Ring Monomers,” their research paper, was published in Nature Chemistry which can be checked here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41557-021-00748-5.

“We are particularly interested in chemically recyclable polymers that can be broken down into the constituents (monomers) from which they are made,” says Wang. “The recycled monomers can be reused to produce the polymers, allowing for a circular use of materials, which not only helps to preserve the finite natural resources used in plastics production but also addresses the issue of unwanted end-of-life accumulation of plastic objects.”

The choice of the proper monomer is critical in the design of chemically recyclable polymers. The researchers discovered a targeted monomer through meticulous computer calculations. They then used widely available starting materials to chemically synthesize the monomer and polymer.

Wang's research team, consist of polymer science graduate students and a postdoctoral scientist, are working to overcome these obstacles by designing polymers that can be broken down into their basic elements.

The polymers will be highly stable when the depolymerization catalyst is absent or removed, and their thermal and mechanical properties can be modified to fulfill the needs of various applications.

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