What Nanotech Science is Teaching Plastics Professionals

How nanotechnology is boosting sustainability, improving products, and bringing the plastics industry into the circular economy.

What Nanotech Science is Teaching Plastics Professionals

Research into nanoparticles is having an increasing impact on the polymer industry. Yet far from being a dangerous new technology, nanomaterial research is benefitting not only plastics producers and the manufacturing sector, but even the environment.

Because of their small size, nanoparticles, which are particles with dimensions in the nanometre range (1,000th the size of a millimetre), have unique properties. By applying these nanoparticles to polymer blends, the performance of those plastics can be enhanced, or new properties can even be added.

In addition, nanoparticles have also been utilized to develop functional coatings for polymers. For instance, silver nanoparticles have been incorporated into polymer coatings to provide antimicrobial properties, making them suitable for medical devices and food packaging.

Overall, research into nanoparticles has revolutionized the polymer industry by enabling the development of advanced materials with improved properties and functionalities. The continuous exploration of nanoparticles and their interaction with polymers holds great promise for future advancements in this field.

“Breakthroughs in the ability to synthesize polymers that have occurred during the past 20 years, … have really transformed our ability to control the molecular structure of polymer chains,” explains Michael Bockstaller, an Asst. Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “[We’re moving] away from simple linear chain structures that are the basis of the vast majority of materials we use today towards more complicated, very intricate architectures, star shapes, comb-shapes that feature a level of complexity that rivals molecules found in nature, such as DNA or polypeptides, proteins.”

For many this may seem like research for research’s sake. But for material scientists like Bockstaller, the deep analysis of how polymers function at the atomic scale can have real benefits, especially for businesses operating in the polymer industry, but for other manufacturing sectors too.

One major area where nanoparticles have influenced the polymer industry is in the development of nanocomposites. By incorporating nanoparticles into polymer matrices, researchers have been able to improve the mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties of polymers. For example, the addition of clay nanoparticles to polymer matrices has resulted in composites with enhanced strength, stiffness, and flame retardancy.

Furthermore, nanoparticles have also been used to improve the barrier properties of polymers. By using nanoparticles with high aspect ratios, such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, into polymer films, researchers have been able to create materials with excellent gas and moisture barrier properties. This has opened up new possibilities for packaging materials, as well as applications in the automotive and aerospace industries.

“We want to use this understanding in order to facilitate polymer materials that have novel properties that solve contemporary engineering problems, such as having polymers with enhanced thermal conductivity, with enhanced mechanical stiffness, or novel electronic properties,” says Bockstaller.

An area of research that is attracting a lot of attention and investment is in the field of hybrid materials, which arise from the blending of polymer chains with nanoparticles.

“One example that we developed,” he adds, “[is] a process that allows us to control the shape of polymer chains on the surface of nanoparticles. And because the properties of polymers are very sensitive to the shape, this allows us to create hybrid materials with unprecedented property combinations. We pursue these properties for applications in areas such as solid-state lighting, protective clothing, and flexible electronics.”

Nanotechnology is already widely used in industry, improving those very products, but material scientists like Bockstaller believe that the smart application of nanomaterials could achieve even more.

“If we want to use more complex molecular architectures to engineer polymers with advanced properties, we will need tools that allow us to address materials in which there are many different variables that can change at a single time,” he says. “This will involve the application of novel techniques such as machine learning, such as artificial intelligence. How we integrate these tools will be one of the challenges we have to solve.

“The second big challenge is that we want to realize the new properties that we can get through these new synthetic techniques without impacting the environment. In fact, if possible, reducing the impact that polymer materials have on the environment.

“And to facilitate this, more research will be needed, and more advances will be needed to understand how we can design polymer molecules that will degrade in the environment that are more amenable to a circular economy so that we can avoid polluting in the first place.”

Given the negative impact so much of the plastics industry is having on the environment, such as air pollution from incineration, microplastics, fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and waste plastic in the oceans, the need for a more circular way to use polymers is the holy grail of manufacturing.

But if nanomaterial specialists like Bockstaller are right, then nanotechnology may well be part of the solution.

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