The Department of Sustainable Plastics has four main research areas: recycling and upcycling plastics, biopolymers, smart materials and biocomposites. There are currently several research projects devoted to this field, including the development of new end products based on bioplastics (including polymer lactic acid and thermoplastic starch), new plastic products for 3D printers, composite products based on natural fibres, and studies into energy reduction in plastic production processes.
Recycling and upcycling plastics
‘Recycling’ refers to the reuse of materials, while ‘upcycling’ involves the process of converting materials into new products of better quality. This might be accomplished by removing plastic components from discarded products and reusing them or by converting plastic waste into high-quality materials. Upcycling plastics brings together a number of different issues, such as making polymers ‘upcycle-proof’ and converting plastic waste into high-quality materials.
The term ‘biopolymer’ has two meanings: there are polymers of organic origin and biodegradable polymers. An example of the former is the use of potato starch in the manufacture of packaging materials, while the latter includes biodegradable fishnets, for example, which help reduce the amount of plastic waste in the world’s seas. The development of biopolymers is not as advanced as that of upcycling, but we do feel that it has excellent potential. We make a selection from potential applications with the objective of coming up with technical challenges to get closer to these applications.
Smart materials are materials with properties that can be significantly altered in a controlled fashion by external stimuli. Our research focuses on the application of smart or sensory materials in textiles, for example safety clothing or applications used in the automobile industry. We work together with our network for these research projects, and many of the results of our projects are eventually developed into commercial products. Conversely, we can also investigate questions submitted by partners in our network.
Composites are materials consisting of plastic and fibre. The materials used for fibre include glass, aramid fibres and carbon dioxide. Plastics used include polyester and epoxy. While composites have a long lifespan, they are not sustainable as such: in addition to requiring a great deal of energy to produce, they are also very difficult to recycle. Biocomposites are made from bio-based plastics and enhanced with natural fibres. The main benefits of biocomposites are that they are biodegradable and easy to recycle. The development of biocomposite products such as wooden decking and door panels for cars is undergoing rapid changes, but several other industries – including the construction, furniture and transport industries – have yet to embrace the technology. Fortunately, new technologies will soon make it possible to produce construction materials which can replace timber, steel and cement.
If you would like to find out more about our research results, be sure to check out the Stenden PRE website.