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Vitamin C and Water Not Just Healthy for People -- Healthy for Plastics, too


New manufacturing techniques may lead to cheaper, “greener” plastics

October 23, 2006

Two new laboratory breakthroughs are poised to dramatically improve how plastics are made by assembling molecular chains more quickly and with less waste. One relies on common vitamin C and the other on the dissolving properties of plain water.

“The methods both present novel and complementary ways to dramatically improve efficiency, product control, and cost for the polymer industry,” said Andy Lovinger, the National Science Foundation program director who oversees funds for the two projects. “Each of these approaches could have a very significant impact on polymer manufacturing.”

Manufacturers can tailor smaller molecules to meet specific needs by gluing them together into long, potentially complex polymers, or plastics. They can determine whether to create a specific trim for a car door, for example, or how soft to make the foam in a pillow. For some plastics, the small building-block molecules do not always stick together, and researchers have devised creative ways to coax certain chemicals into chains--although with certain costs, such as added catalysts that can become unwanted waste.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., have discovered that adding vitamin C, glucose, or other electron-absorbing agents to a powerful plastic manufacturing method can reduce the needed copper catalyst by 1000 times. Because the catalyst has to be removed from the end products, less of the metal means far less waste and drastically reduced costs.

The research is described in a paper appearing in the Oct. 17, 2006, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The underlying production method, pioneered by the Carnegie researchers, is called “atom transfer radical polymerization” and allows manufacturers to join chemical building blocks that normally would repel each other. Mass manufacturing could become more affordable for a range of items such as advanced sensors, drug delivery systems, paint coatings, and video displays.

A different approach announced recently by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) cuts waste in the byproducts and in the solvents that help dissolve chemicals for the reactions. Called “single electron transfer-living radical polymerization,” the new method allows large molecules to be crafted very quickly. Using one of the most environmentally friendly solvents--water--and relying on relatively low-energy reactions, manufacturers can limit the amount of byproducts.

The UPenn researchers presented their findings in the online Journal of the American Chemical Society on Oct. 5, 2006.


Media Contacts
Lauren Ward, Carnegie Mellon University (412) 268-7761
Greg Lester, University of Pennsylvania (215) 573-6604

Program Contacts
Andrew J. Lovinger, NSF (703) 292-4933

Principal Investigators
Virgil Percec, University of Pennsylvania (215) 573-5527
Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Carnegie Mellon University (412) 268-3209

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


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