New polymer made from low-cost building blocks could revolutionize recycling

Researchers at Flinders University have made a groundbreaking discovery in the field of chemistry by developing a new method to produce environmentally friendly polymers using low-cost materials and a small amount of electricity. The innovative reaction takes place rapidly at room temperature and eliminates the need for hazardous chemical initiators, relying solely on electricity. The findings, recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society by an interdisciplinary team, highlight the wide range of potential applications for these green polymers, including gold mining and e-waste recycling.

The production of hundreds of millions of tons of plastic annually, much of which is used for single purposes, has raised concerns about its environmental impact. The energy consumption involved in manufacturing plastics contributes to pollution and global warming. To address this issue, the researchers at Flinders University have ventured into the emerging field of using electricity to produce new materials, opening doors to more sustainable alternatives.

The process involves adding an electron to a basic building block or monomer, followed by electrocuting the monomer to induce a chain reaction with another building block, leading to polymer formation. Jasmine Pople, a Ph.D. candidate and the first author of the study, emphasizes that this electrochemical method offers highly functional and eco-friendly materials.

The use of electricity to synthesize valuable molecules is gaining popularity due to its versatility and potential for generating less waste compared to traditional chemical syntheses. Moreover, it can be powered by renewable energy sources, further enhancing its sustainability.

The team at Flinders University has successfully developed a key polymer featuring sulfur-sulfur bonds in its backbone. These bonds possess valuable properties, such as the ability to bind precious metals like gold. The researchers demonstrated that the key polymer could remove up to 97% of gold from relevant mining and e-waste recycling solutions.

Another advantage of the sulfur-sulfur bonds is their ability to be broken and reformed. This property facilitated the discovery of conditions to convert the polymer back into its original building block, representing a significant advancement in recycling. In conventional plastic recycling, the materials are often heated and reshaped, resulting in degradation and down-cycling, ultimately leading to disposal in landfills. However, the polymers synthesized in this study can be chemically converted back into their constituent building blocks with high efficiency, enabling the reuse of these blocks to create new polymers.

To gain insights into the intricate workings of the reaction, the team conducted quantum mechanical calculations. The findings revealed a remarkable self-correcting mechanism during polymerization, ensuring a uniform polymer structure by reversing any incorrect reactions until the correct one proceeds. This feature adds to the versatility and reliability of the process.

The future applications of these sustainable materials are extensive and promising. They can be utilized in environmental remediation, gold mining, and even as anti-microbial agents. The groundbreaking research conducted by Flinders University scientists represents a significant step forward in the quest for more environmentally friendly and efficient materials and manufacturing processes.

Source: Flinders University

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