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Mathematical model could streamline the development of new plastics


September 30, 2011

A newly-developed mathematical model could make the development of new plastics much more precise and efficient (Photo: kafka4prez via Flickr)

A newly-developed mathematical model could make the development of new plastics much more precise and efficient (Photo: kafka4prez via Flickr)

When it comes to the development of new plastics, two things have generally happened - a plastic is created and then a use is found for it, or a long trial-and-error process is undertaken in order to create a plastic with specific qualities. In a move that has been described as "comparable to cracking a plastics DNA," however, scientists at the University of Leeds and Durham University have created a mathematical model that should allow specialty plastics to be created much more quickly and efficiently.

The model incorporates two pieces of computer code. One of those is designed to predict how different polymers will flow, based on the the connections between their string-like molecules. The other predicts the shapes that those molecules will take on, when created at a chemical level. The model is based on data from experiments, in which the melting, flowing and forming processes of lab-created "perfect polymers" were analyzed.

Serving not unlike a plastics recipe book, the model should allow developers to look up what compounds will be needed to synthesize plastics with certain qualities, or conversely to find out what qualities will result from the combination of certain compounds. This should reportedly be particularly useful in the development of more environmentally-friendly, non-petroleum-based plastics.

"By changing two or three numbers in the computer code, we can adapt all the predictions for new bio-polymer sources" said Durham's Professor Tom McLeish.

The research is part of the collaborative Microscale Polymer Processing project. A paper on the model was published in the journal Science this Thursday.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

This would seem to be a very important development.

Wherever one looks we are surrounded by plastic of many different kinds and being able to improve and refine the structure and capabilities of new and also no doubt, some existing plastics could result in many product improvements.

Added to these benefits the ability to model new plastics based on organic sources can bring a whole new range of possibilities with environmental benefits.

Congratulations to these two teams and may their work enjoy further successes!


This discovery seems important, but how original will new materials be designed and birthed? Also, can the plastic be programmed to be self-destructive and environmentally friendly? That would be great.

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