Eco-friendly plastics made from sugars show ‘unprecedented’ properties

The search for sustainable alternatives to common plastics has researchers investigating how their building blocks can come from sources other than oil, and for the scientists behind a promising new study, it’s led them straight to the sweet stuff. The team produced a new form of plastic with “unprecedented” mechanical properties that are maintained through standard recycling processes, and succeeded in doing so using sugar-derived materials as a starting point.

The breakthrough comes from scientists at the University of Birmingham in the UK and Duke University in the US, who, in their quest for more durable plastics, have turned to sugar alcohols. These organic compounds have a similar chemical structure to the sugars they are derived from, which scientists believe can bring unique benefits to plastic production.

The two compounds in question are isoidide and isomannide, both of which exhibit rigid rings of atoms that scientists have been able to use as building blocks for a new family of polymers. The isoidide-based polymer exhibited stiffness and malleability similar to typical plastics, and strength comparable to high-grade engineering plastics.

The polymer made from isomannide, on the other hand, had similar strength and toughness, but with a high degree of elasticity that allowed it to recover its shape after deformation. The characteristics of both have been retained after being subjected to the common recycling methods of spraying and heat treatment.

The diagram illustrates the structure and characteristics of the sugar-based building blocks that led to a new breakthrough in plastic

DOI: 10.1021/jacs.1c10278

The team used computer modeling to study how the unique spatial arrangement of atoms in compounds gives them these different properties, a discipline known as stereochemistry. In the next step, the scientists created plastics using both building blocks, allowing them to adjust mechanical properties and degradation rates independently of each other. This opens up the prospect of creating durable plastics with desired degradation rates, without impacting their mechanical performance.

“Our results really demonstrate how stereochemistry can be used as a central theme to design durable materials with truly unprecedented mechanical properties,” said Duke University professor Dr. Matthew Becker.

The team has filed a patent application for the technology and is looking for industrial partners to help bring it to market. The hope is that sugar-based plastics can offer a more sustainable option not only in terms of production, but also disposal, with petroleum-based plastics sometimes taking centuries to break down.

“This study really shows what is possible with sustainable plastics,” says Professor Andrew Dove. “While we need to do more work to reduce costs and study the potential environmental impact of these materials, in the long term it is possible that these types of materials could replace petrochemical-based plastics which do not degrade easily. in the environment.”

The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: University of Birmingham via

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