In a breakthrough development, researchers at the University of Birmingham and Duke University have developed a new class of polymers from sustainable sources. The highlight of this family of polymers is that they display all qualities of common plastics, along with degradability and mechanically recyclability.
To undertake this, scientists used sugar-based initiating materials instead of petrochemical derivatives to create two new polymers: One that is stretchy like rubber, and another which is tough but displays ductility like most commercially available plastics.
The research involved using isomannide and isodide as building blocks to make the new polymers. The two chemical compounds are composed of sugar alcohols and feature a strong atom ring.
Isodide-based polymer displayed malleability and stiffness similar to common plastics, and is strong similar to high quality industrial plastics such as Nylon-6.
While isomannide and isodide only differ in terms of 3D spatial positioning of two bonds, the material based on isomannide showed high elasticity to recover its shape after deformation.
Importantly, the materials maintained their superior mechanical properties following thermal processing and pulverization, which is the usual method for recycling plastics mechanically.
Meanwhile, cutting-edge computational modeling simulation showed how the polymer chains is packed and interacts to generate such different polymer properties. The unique 3D shapes of sugar derivatives enable various movements and interactions of long chains that cause the extensive difference in physical properties that was observed.
Copolymers created that contained both isomannide and isodide units could control the mechanical properties and degradation rate independently of each other, found researchers. Therefore, the finding opens doors to use unique shapes of sugars to tune the degradability independently for a specific use without modifying the properties of the material.