GEOFFREY COATES: The overall goal was to try to find a way to make a better material from the world's number one and number two polymers, and also help recycling of those polymers that are two thirds of our waste stream, materials that have been around for 50 years. If you could either make their properties better, so you can use less of them, or if you could find a way to more efficiently recycle these polymers, we would have a huge impact on sustainability in a way that we don't currently have by making a new polymer. The dream is, could you take all the world's polyethylene and polypropylene and just throw it together and melt it down, and get a material that has good properties, or maybe even better than one of the materials alone?
One of the areas where we've been actively working is in making new polymers. We did this by making a new catalyst that allows us to make a very special type of plastic that at 1% level makes these materials like each other. And that's a very challenging thing to do.
One of the tests for seeing if the polymer works as a compatiblizer is you take a film of polyethylene and a film of polypropylene and you try to melt them together. And since polyethylene and polypropylene don't like each other, it's really easy to pull that film apart. Now if you put a very small amount of our polymer in between and then melt them together, you then try to pull the two parts away from one another.
And it's very, very tough to do that. And usually with our material, it actually rips the polymer apart as the bulk material, not at where we've welded it. So that's the first sign that we've got a very good material to effectively glue together polyethylene and polypropylene.
There are a number of things that excite me about this work. And one is the ability to take the world's number one and number two polymers, and find a way to make a material that maybe is better than either one of them alone. The big advantage of that would be if say, we can make a milk jug where we use 5% less polymer because the properties are better, think of the world's savings on all that plastic.
I'm really excited about this work because it was done as a team effort. This is work that would be really impossible for me to do alone. It would be impossible for my collaborators to do alone. The group at Minnesota, the group at Cornell really came together and was able to do science as a collective group that I don't think would have been possible as individuals.
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Geoffrey Coates, the Tisch University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, discusses an exciting new multiblock polymer that, when added to polyethylene and polypropylene in small measure, creates a new, stronger material out of two otherwise incompatible plastics.