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UNC researchers developing process to create stronger plastic material

Eliza Neidhart, a second year student in the chemistry graduate program, cleans her tools in the Leibfarth lab where she does polymer research on Feb. 22, 2022.

Chemists from Leibfarth and Alexanian groups at UNC are working to design a process to change the properties of common plastics to create a tougher material.

This research could allow for more widespread reusing and recycling of single-use plastic products.

Polymers are found in common plastic materials such as garbage bags, yogurt containers and water bottles, Frank Leibfarth, head of the Leibfarth group and assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, said.

The research aims to create a stronger plastic material, one that has expanded value and use over common plastic products. 

"By creating this material that is tougher, that is stronger — it has a higher economic value and is used in materials that cost more than a plastic bag at the grocery store," Leibfarth said. "That creates an economic incentive for recycling."

He said that one of his long-term visions for the research is to create solutions for the negative environmental consequences of two specific polymers, polypropylene and polyethylene. These polymers make up a significant amount of plastic production and waste.

"These are about 60 percent of world plastic production, these two polymers alone," Leibfarth said. "There are enough polyethylene and polypropylene produced every day in the world to more than fill up Kenan Stadium like to the top."

Eliza Neidhart, a second year student in the chemistry graduate program, cleans her tools in the Leibfarth lab where she does polymer research on Feb. 22, 2022. Pictured behind her is a Soxhlet, which is being used to extract polymer from material.

By developing technology that can transform the structure of these plastics, Leibfarth said he aims to make these materials more valuable than their original form through chemical means.

Carbon-hydrogen bonds used in common plastics are difficult to transform and break down, Leibfarth said. The research teams found a way to create a reagent that could create new bonds in places that were previously unreactive.

By doing this, the teams were able to change a post-consumer packaging into a material that is used for high-end plastics, Erik Alexanian, professor in the Department of Chemistry, said.

“This concept of taking what’s essentially waste and turning it into a high-valuable plastic is not something that has been done before,” he said.

The polyolefin plastics used in the research are difficult to work with because they don’t meld or become soluble at room temperature, Eliza Neidhart, a graduate student in the Leibfarth Group, said. 

“To study them, we have to heat them up to high temperatures, which means heating up and cooling down equipment a lot, and that means a lot of time and money," she said.

The researchers hope their project will contribute to a more functional and sustainable future for plastic use.

"I personally feel that it’s very important to translate fundamental research to big problems facing the world," Neidhart said. 


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