UF Chemistry Study Could Mean Major Reduction In Polyester Costs

January 23, 1998

Writer: Karen Meisenheimer
Sources: Ken Wagener, (352) 392-4666; Jim Boncella, (505) 667-5569

GAINESVILLE --- Say polyester and most people conjure up images of flashy leisure suits and trendy discos from the '70s. The truth is, polyester has other applications that are valuable in today's society, and research designed to educate graduate students in chemistry at the University of Florida could one day be used to make polyester at half the current cost.

"People hear the word polyester and they think of the apparel, and they usually grimace," said Ken Wagener, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Macromolecular Science and Engineering at UF. "People aren't aware of the many ways polyester is used in their everyday lives."

Scientists involved with the study say the findings could reveal a method for manufacturing polyester from two inexpensive gases: carbon monoxide and ethylene oxide. These two gases could translate to savings of more than 50 percent in the cost of raw materials used to make the popular polymer, Wagener said.

"If all goes right, the research findings could be used to replace the current polyester product, getting the same performance for a lower price," Wagener said. "It is obvious to train students with a goal that has interest from industry."

The polyester most commonly used today is referred to as PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, said Wagener, an expert in polymer chemistry. Its most widespread uses include plastic soda bottles, fibers for apparel and belts in automobile tires. Polyester is an attractive alternative to other materials because it's nontoxic and easily recyclable and has the potential to be used for a number of new products, including the body panels for cars, Wagener said.

The lab has been successful in producing low-molecular-weight polyesters using carbon monoxide and ethylene oxide, but researchers still lack the catalyst -- a substance that speeds up chemical reactions -- needed to make the reaction work more efficiently.

"We're looking for the chemical compound that will take little molecules and create larger ones," said Jim Boncella, an associate professor of chemistry at UF and the study's principal investigator.

"Students have been working to find the catalyst that will react in a way that we want it to so we can create the polyester," Boncella said. "We think we have an idea of what that is.

"The experiments we're doing are to understand why that particular compound works and to understand how to use it to make higher-molecular-weight polyester," he said. "It's a great opportunity for us as educators to use chemistry at a very fundamental level that has the potential for practical use."

Boncella and Wagener recently submitted a research proposal to the Department of Energy's Partnerships in Academic and Industrial Research program in cooperation with Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tenn. "They (Eastman) have been making polyester forever," Wagener said. "And the best thing about this government sponsorship is that it focuses on education."

David Kashdan, director of polymers research division at Eastman, said his company has had a long-standing interest in polyester technology and is interested in new developments in the field.

"Furthermore, the project will provide an opportunity for students to perform research in an industrial laboratory and become acquainted with Eastman in the process," he said.

Wagener and Boncella said even though they have had success in the research so far, they have yet to produce a commercially-useable polyester from the inexpensive gases.

Said Wagener: "Research requires patience and a long-time effort. Mother Nature doesn't give away her secrets easily."

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University of Florida

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