Nav: Home

Scientists discover a better way to make plastics out of sulfur

February 07, 2019

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered a new process to make polymers out of sulfur which could provide a way of making plastic that is less harmful to the environment.

Sulfur is an abundant chemical element and can be found as a mineral deposit across the world. It is also a waste product from the refining of crude oil and gas in the petrochemicals industry, which generates huge stockpiles of sulfur outside refineries.

Whilst being identified as an interesting possible alternative to carbon in the manufacture of polymers, sulfur cannot form a stable polymer on its own but, as revealed in a process called 'inverse vulcanization' it must be reacted with organic crosslinker molecules to make it stable. This process can require high temperatures, long reaction times, and produce harmful by-products.

However, researchers from the University of Liverpool's Stephenson Institute of Renewable Energy, working in the field of materials chemistry have made a potentially game changing discovery.

In a study published in Nature Communications, they report the discovery of a new catalytic process for inverse vulcanization that reduces the required reaction times and temperatures, whilst preventing the production of harmful by-products. It also increases the reaction yields, improves the physical properties of the polymers, and allows a wider range of crosslinkers to be used.

Synthetic polymers are ubiquitous to human life and are among the most extensively manufactured materials on earth. However, with nearly 350 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, coupled with increasing environmental concerns and decreasing petrochemical recourses, there is an urgent need to develop new polymers that are more sustainable.

Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University, whose group conducted the research, said: "Making polymers (plastics) out of sulfur is a potential game changer. To be able to produce useful plastic materials from sulfur, a by-product of petroleum, could reduce society's reliance on polymers made from petroleum itself. In addition, these sulfur polymers may be easier to recycle, which opens up exciting possibilities for reducing current use of plastics.

"There is also the scope for unique new polymers with unprecedented properties. The properties of sulfur are very different to carbon, and this has already opened up a world of possible applications for sulfur polymers including thermal imaging lenses, batteries, water purification and human health.

"We made the key discovery when we decided to look to the acceleration of traditional rubber vulcanisation for inspiration. This research now marks a significant step forward in the development of inverse vulcanized polymers. It makes inverse vulcanization more widely applicable, efficient, eco-friendly and productive than the previous routes, not only broadening the fundamental chemistry itself, but also opening the door for the industrialization and broad application of these fascinating new materials in many areas of chemical and material science."
-end-
The paper `Catalytic inverse vulcanisation' is published in Nature Communications: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-08430-8

University of Liverpool

Related Carbon Articles:

Investigation of oceanic 'black carbon' uncovers mystery in global carbon cycle
An unexpected finding published today in Nature Communications challenges a long-held assumption about the origin of oceanic black coal, and introduces a tantalizing new mystery: If oceanic black carbon is significantly different from the black carbon found in rivers, where did it come from?
First fully rechargeable carbon dioxide battery with carbon neutrality
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are the first to show that lithium-carbon dioxide batteries can be designed to operate in a fully rechargeable manner, and they have successfully tested a lithium-carbon dioxide battery prototype running up to 500 consecutive cycles of charge/recharge processes.
How and when was carbon distributed in the Earth?
A magma ocean existing during the core formation is thought to have been highly depleted in carbon due to its high-siderophile (iron loving) behavior.
New route to carbon-neutral fuels from carbon dioxide discovered by Stanford-DTU team
A new way to convert carbon dioxide into the building block for sustainable liquid fuels was very efficient in tests and did not have the reaction that destroys the conventional device.
How much carbon the land can stomach with more carbon dioxide in the air
Researchers from 28 institutions in nine countries succeeded in quantifying carbon dioxide fertilization for the past five decades, using simulations from 12 terrestrial ecosystem models and observations from seven field carbon dioxide enrichment experiments.
'Charismatic carbon'
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), addressing carbon emissions from our food sector is absolutely essential to combatting climate change.
Extreme wildfires threaten to turn boreal forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources
A research team investigated the impact of extreme fires on previously intact carbon stores by studying the soil and vegetation of the boreal forest and how they changed after a record-setting fire season in the Northwest Territories in 2014.
Can we still have fun if the UK goes carbon neutral?
Will Britain going carbon neutral mean no more fun? Experts from the University of Surrey have urged local policy makers to put in place infrastructure that will enable people to enjoy recreation and leisure while keeping their carbon footprint down.
Could there be life without carbon? (video)
One element is the backbone of all forms of life we've ever discovered on Earth: carbon.
Biodiversity and carbon: perfect together
Biodiversity conservation is often considered to be a co-benefit of protecting carbon sinks such as intact forests to help mitigate climate change.
More Carbon News and Carbon Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#543 Give a Nerd a Gift
Yup, you guessed it... it's Science for the People's annual holiday episode that helps you figure out what sciency books and gifts to get that special nerd on your list. Or maybe you're looking to build up your reading list for the holiday break and a geeky Christmas sweater to wear to an upcoming party. Returning are pop-science power-readers John Dupuis and Joanne Manaster to dish on the best science books they read this past year. And Rachelle Saunders and Bethany Brookshire squee in delight over some truly delightful science-themed non-book objects for those whose bookshelves are already full. Since...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab