Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered a new process to make polymers out of sulphur, which could provide a better way of making plastic that is less harmful to the environment.
Sulphur is an abundant chemical element and can be found as a mineral deposit across the world. With huge waste stockpiles also outside of oil and gas refineries, the dilemma is how to put this vast resource to good use.
A process called reverse vulcanisation allows sulphur to be used to make a stable polymer, an alternative to carbon plastic. The process requires the sulphur to be reacted with organic crosslinker molecules to make it stable and this process can require costly high temperatures and long reactions times, whilst also creating harmful by-products.
The new process
The new discovery coming out of University of Liverpool’s Stephenson Institute of Renewable Energy, reports a new catalytic process for inverse vulcanisation, which reduces the required reaction times and temperatures, whilst also preventing the production of harmful by-products. The catalysis also increases the reaction yields and improves the physical properties of the polymers.
Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University expressed that the manufacturing benefit of using sulphur over carbon to make polymers, is that by using a by-product of petroleum, society’s reliance on polymers made from the petroleum itself would be reduced. In addition, Hasell predicted that these sulfur polymers may be easier to recycle, which would open up exciting possibilities for reducing current use of plastics.
On the future use of the process, Hasell added that it “also opens the door for the industrialisation and broad application of these fascinating new materials in many areas of chemical and material science”.