Innovation in the polymer industry: Part 1

The polymer industry is vast and has wide-reaching application, everything from medical devices to home products. But change is happening in the industry, and we asked our Zintro experts to give us an overview of new innovations, materials that show the most promise, and where we might see these innovations applied.

Edward Trueman, an expert in bio-fiber composite technology, says that the global polymers and plastics manufacturing industry is answering the call for sustainable alternatives to hydrocarbon-based materials. In this space, bio-polymers/bio-plastics are produced via process conversion, utilizing starches and other organic matter to create a base polymer. “The challenge is to produce materials to replace conventional plastics from a cost performance basis,” says Trueman. “We are witnessing the development of a parallel universe, not only in plastics manufacturing but in base chemicals, intermediates, and monomers derived from organic means.”

Trueman says that bio-polymer base materials have been developed, such as PLA and PHA. “Many major chemical, agricultural, and plastics-related companies, along with substantial private investment, are flowing into bio-polymer developments. The key drivers are resource preservation and end-of-life solutions to recycling. The problem for conventional plastics is not the science; it is the inability to actually achieve high levels of recycling.”

William Floyd, an emulsion polymer researcher, says that renewable, bio-based raw materials are becoming mainstream in emulsion polymer formulations. “This trend will accelerate as oil prices increase,” he observes. “Starch is useful as an additive for emulsion polymers for certain applications that require strength and elongation resistance with the added benefit of lower cost. Starch is readily available around the world from various local sources such as corn, rice, potato, tapioca, and waxy maize.”

Floyd says that all starches are water soluble/dispersible and fully functionalized with hydroxyl groups for reaction with active methylol cross-linkers such as N-methylol acrylamide or methylol resins such as UF, MF, or PF. “Various starch modifications may lend certain starches to be more suitable for some applications rather than others. Starches are readily screened for suitability in these applications. I’ve worked with clients around the world incorporating starch into their binder formulations with great improvements in performance and economics,” Floyd says.

Floyd says that functional acrylic monomers made from plant oils such as soy bean, cotton, jatropha, corn and castor show great promise in emulsion polymers for various applications. “Emulsion polymers containing these monomers may actually show added value advantages over emulsion polymers containing only conventional monomers,” he says. “These monomers generally have low Tg’s around -65’C. The unsaturation in these plant-derived monomers can air-oxidize and undergo oxidative cross-linking and raise the Tg of the film significantly. Other monomers derived from pine sources have been found to have high Tg’s up to 75-80’C.”

The plant oil monomers are currently in scale-up mode, Floyd says, while pine monomers are still more developmental. “Technology developed for the plant oil monomers should transfer easily to pine products and facilitate commercialization. Emulsion polymers containing both plant oil and pine-derived monomers would have interesting properties and a very green aspect,” he says.

Larry Chapoy, PhD, materials scientist in polymers, thinks the industry will move into new feed stocks coming from bio-refineries that were previously thought to be exotic. “New products will be developed that contain laminates/co-extrusions that include high performance properties that are only required at the surface; for example, fluoropolymers, photovoltaics, and anti-bacterials,” he says.

By Maureen Aylward