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New Chemical Process Converts Polyethylene Plastic into Strong Adhesives

Published on 2020-12-24. Edited By : SpecialChem

Plastic_AdhesiveThe University of California, Berkeley has developed a new chemical process that converts polyethylene plastic into a strong and more valuable adhesive and could change that calculus.

Adds Chemical Group to the Polymer to Make it Stick

The vision is that you would take a plastic bag that is of no value, and instead of throwing it away, where it ends up in a landfill, you would turn it into something of high value,” said John Hartwig, the Henry Rapoport Chair in Organic Chemistry at UC Berkeley and leader of the research team.

You could not take all of this recycled plastic — hundreds of billions of pounds of polyethylene are produced each year — and turn it into a material with adhesive properties, but if you take some fraction of that and turn it into something that is of high value, that can change the economics of turning the rest of it into something that is of lower value.”

The chemical process that Hartwig and his colleagues developed keeps many of the original properties of polyethylene, but adds a chemical group to the polymer that makes it stick to metal: something polyethylene normally does poorly. His team showed that the modified polyethylene can even be painted with water-based latex. Latex easily peels off standard low-density polyethylene, referred to as LDPE.

While the process is not yet economical for industrial use, Hartwig believes that it can be improved and could be the starting point for adding other properties besides stickiness. The success also hints that other catalysts could work with other types of plastics, such as the polypropylene found in recycled plastic bottles, to produce higher-value products that are economically attractive.

We are able to enhance adhesion, while preserving all the other traits of polyethylene that the industry finds so useful,” said co-author Phillip Messersmith, the Class of 1941 Professor in UC Berkeley’s departments of bioengineering and materials science and engineering. “The processability, thermal stability and mechanical properties seem to be unharmed while enhancing adhesion. That is tricky to do. That is really where we have some exciting things to show.”

New Catalytic Process Creates Functionalized Polymers

Hartwig specializes in designing new catalytic processes — in this case, adding small chemical units to large hydrocarbon chains, or polymers, in specific places — to create “functionalized polymers” with new and useful properties. Such reactions are difficult, because a major selling point of plastics is that they are resistant to chemical reactions.

For this project, he wanted to see if he could add a hydroxyl group — oxygen bound to hydrogen, or OH — at a small fraction of the carbon-hydrogen bonds along the polyethylene chain.

Polyethylene usually has between 2,000 and 10,000 carbons in a chain, with two hydrogens on each carbon — really, it is an ocean of CH2 groups, called methylenes,” he said. “We dipped into the literature to look for the most active catalyst we could find for functionalization of a methylene position.”

The catalyst would have to work at high temperatures, since the solid recycled plastic has to be melted. Also, it would have to work in a solvent that is nonpolar, and thus able to mix with polyethylene, which is nonpolar. This is one reason it does not stick to metals, which are polar, or charged.

Polyethylene Compound Sticks Tightly to Aluminum Metal

Hartwig and postdoctoral associate Liye Chen settled on a ruthenium-based catalyst (polyfluorinated ruthenium porphyrin) that satisfied these requirements and also could add OH groups to the polymer chain without the highly reactive hydroxyl breaking the polymer chain apart.

The reaction, surprisingly, produced a polyethylene compound that sticks tightly to aluminum metal, presumably by means of the OH molecules affixed along polyethylene’s hydrocarbon chain. To better understand the adhesion, Chen teamed up with Katerina Malollari, a graduate student in Messersmith’s lab, which focuses on biological tissues with adhesive properties — in particular, a glue produced by mussels.

Chen and Malollari discovered that adding a relatively small percentage of alcohol to the polymer boosted adhesion 20 times. “The catalysis introduced chemical changes to less than 10 percent of the polymer, yet enhanced dramatically its ability to adhere to other surfaces,” Messersmith said.

Hartwig foresees more opportunities for functionalization of complex polymers, including the most common plastic, polypropylene.

We are one of the only groups anywhere that has been able to selectively introduce a functional group to long-chain hydrocarbon polymers,” he said. “Other people can break the chains, and others can cyclize the chains, but to actually introduce a polar functional group into the chains is something that nobody else has been able to do.”

Source: University of California, Berkeley
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