One of the challenges in developing good vegetable oil polymers is their chemical structure. Polymers that have desirable mechanical properties tend to contain individual molecules that are intertwined, similar to noodles in a bowl of spaghetti. This entanglement gives them many of their best characteristics, like high strength.
The polymers that Robertson is developing from vegetable oils, though, have long strands of carbon coming off the side of each repeat unit in the polymer chain. These strands limit how much the individual polymer chains intertwine with one another. As a result, these polymers from vegetable oils are typically weaker than their petroleum counterparts.
Robertson will explore ways to create vegetable oil polymers that are more fully entangled, and therefore have better mechanical properties.
Ultimately, Robertson is aiming to create new materials that have properties that are even better than commercially available petroleum-derived materials.
In addition to synthesizing new polymers and optimizing their mechanical properties, this project will also look at their environmental impact. Vegetable oils include a type of chemical group (an ester) that makes them biodegradable. If the polymers Robertson develops retain this functionality, they should be biodegradable, as well.
The ability of these polymers to biodegrade will be tested in collaboration with Debora Rodrigues, an assistant professor in the college's civil and environmental engineering department.
Robertson will also study the environmental impacts of these new polymers. While eliminating the use of petroleum in favor of plants seems good at first glance, the materials' entire life cycles should be considered, she said: How much energy does it take to make these polymers
|Contact: Jeannie Kever|
University of Houston