Sugar, Sugar: Duke Scientists Hit the Sweet Spot in Creating Better Plastics

In the search for sustainable alternatives to common plastics, researchers from Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University may have hit the sweet spot—a new, sturdy and recyclable form of plastic derived from sugar, according to New Atlas.

In collaboration with scientists from the University of Birmingham in the UK, the scientists have produced a variety of plastic with “unprecedented” mechanical properties that are maintained throughout standard recycling processes. And they used sugar-derived materials as the starting point. Specifically, sugar alcohols, which are organic compounds with a chemical structure that’s similar to the sugars they’re derived from. The team of scientists said this new plastic boasts “unprecedented” properties.

The two compounds, isoidide and isomannide, both feature rigid rings of atoms that the scientists used as building blocks for a new family of polymers. The polymer based on isoidide provides stiffness and malleability like that of typical plastics as well as strength comparable to high-grade engineering plastics.

The polymer made from isomannide shows similar strength and toughness, plus a high degree of elasticity so the plastic can recover its shape after taking a beating. The polymers both retained their unique properties after undergoing the common recycling methods of pulverization and thermal processing, the study found.

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“The team used computer modeling to study how the unique spatial arrangement of atoms within the compounds afford them these different properties, a discipline known as stereochemistry,” New Atlas reported. “As a next step, the scientists created plastics using both building blocks, which enabled them to tune the mechanical properties and degradation rates independently of one another. This raises the prospect of creating sustainable plastics with desired degradation rates without impacting on their mechanical performance.”

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

The team has filed a patent application for the technology and is seeking industrial partners to help commercialize it. “The hope is that the sugar-based plastics can offer a more sustainable option not just in terms of production, but also their disposal, with petroleum-based plastics sometimes taking centuries to break down,” New Atlas reported.

“This study really shows what is possible with sustainable plastics,” Professor Andrew Dove said in the article. “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 sorts of materials could replace petrochemically-sourced plastics that don’t readily degrade in the environment.”

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