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Published: 27 October 2011  
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Industrial research  |  Pure sciences  |  Human resources & mobility  |  Research policy


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How 'perfect plastic' is just round the corner

Plastic is getting a huge boost thanks to a team of European researchers that has found a new way to develop this material. An innovative 'recipe book' will help experts create the 'perfect plastic' with specific uses and properties. Presented in the journal Science, this study was funded in part by the DYNACOP ('Dynamics of architecturally complex polymers') project, which has clinched a Marie Curie Action 'Networks for Initial Training' grant worth almost EUR 3.5 million under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Plastic polymer granules © Shutterstock
Plastic polymer granules
©  Shutterstock

Over the course of the last decade, academics and industry experts in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have investigated how to polish the development of giant 'macromolecules' that form the basic components of plastics; these macromolecules also influence the properties of plastics during the melting, flowing and forming processes in their production.

Researchers use low-density polyethylenes (LDPEs) in trays and containers, lightweight car parts, recyclable packaging and electrical goods. To date, experts have first produced a plastic and then later found a use for it. If this did not pan out, they attempted several different 'recipes' to see which worked best. This latest technique could help ensure that bigger holes are not burned in the industry's pockets, as well as save on time.

The mathematical models used put together two pieces of computer code. The first estimates how polymers will flow based on the connections between the string-like molecules from which they are made. The second predicts the shapes that these molecules will take when they are developed at a chemical level. The team, part of the Microscale Polymer Processing project, used laboratory generated and synthesised 'perfect polymers' to enhance these models.

'Plastics are used by everybody, every day, but until now their production has been effectively guesswork,' says lead author Dr Daniel Read from the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. 'This breakthrough means that new plastics can be created more efficiently and with a specific use in mind, with benefits to industry and the environment.'

For his part, Professor Tom McLeish, formerly of the University of Leeds, now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Durham University, who leads the Microscale Polymer Processing project, says: 'After years of trying different chemical recipes and finding only a very few provide useable products, this new science provides industry with a toolkit to bring new materials to market faster and more efficiently.'

Professor McLeish, who is one of the authors of the paper, points out that developments in plastics production, which is changing from oil-based materials to sustainable and renewable materials, allows parties to ignore the 'trial and error' phase. 'By changing two or three numbers in the computer code, we can adapt all the predictions for new biopolymer sources,' he says.

Commenting on the results of the study, Dr Ian Robinson of Lucite International, and one of the industrial participants in the wider project, says: 'This is a wonderful outcome of years of work by this extraordinary team. It's a testimony to the strong collaborative ethos of the UK research groups and global companies involved. The insights offered by this approach are comparable to cracking a plastics deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).'

The DYNACOP project, which is headed by the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, is seeking to fuel our understanding of the flow behaviour and dynamics of blends of topologically complex macromolecular fluids and their role in processing and properties of nano-structured blends. The DYNACOP consortium comprises experts from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

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University of Leeds
DYNACOP project factsheet on CORDIS
'EU backs revolutionary multi-purpose car material'

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