Scientists Turn Sugars Found in Wood into Natural Polymer

Scientists Turn Sugars Found in Wood into Natural Polymer

Maybe we’re a few steps closer to producing sustainable polymer now. Scientists from the University of Bath have made a sustainable polymer. They used xylose, the second most abundant sugar in nature.

With this, polymer doesn’t rely on crude oil and its properties are easily controllable. That makes the material flexible or crystalline.

So far, xylose has been used for making sugar substitute xylitol. Yes, us humans can consume them too, but it’s not a major human nutrient. And surprisingly for me, we use this sugar to make hydrogen too.

The researchers said that the polymer, from the polyether family, has a lot of applications. For one, we can use it as a building block for polyurethane used in mattresses and shoe soles.

Not only that, we can use it as a “bio” alternative to polyethylene glycol, which can be beneficial for bio-medicine. Also, it can be an alternative to polyethylene oxide, sometimes used as electrolyte in batteries.

It doesn’t stop there. The team says that they could add additional functionality to this versatile polymer. To do so, they bind other chemical groups like fluorescent probes or dyes to the sugar molecule.

Additionally, the team can produce hundreds of grams of this material easily. This means that production would be rapidly scalable.

Versatile, sustainable polymer

Dr. Antoine Buchard who led the study said, “We’re very excited that we’ve been able to produce this sustainable material from a plentiful natural resource—wood.

“This polymer is particularly versatile because its physical and chemicals properties can be tweaked easily, to make a crystalline material or more of a flexible rubber, as well as to introduce very specific chemical functionalities.

“Until now this was very difficult to achieve with bio-derived polymers.

“This means that with this polymer, we can target a variety of applications, from packaging to healthcare or energy materials, in a more sustainable way.”

I don’t have any scientific background so I didn’t know this fact. Apparently, sugars occur in two forms that are mirror images of each other, called D and L. Xylose is no exception.

Polymer from the University of Bath’s scientists uses naturally occurring D-enantiomer of xylose. Researchers found that combining it with the L-form makes the polymer a lot stronger.

The research team has filed a patent for their technology. They’re now interested in working with industrial collaborators. Of course, the team wants to scale up production and explore applications of the new materials.


Protecting buildings from fault ruptures using polymers

Chelongpu fault rupture. Photo by MiNe Wikimedia Commons

There are places around the world that build engineering structures close to active fault segments. Structures like earth dams, buildings, roads, pipelines, and more can get devastating impact when fault ruptures happen.

Strike-slip fault rupture occurs when the rock masses slip past each other parallel to the strike.

Researchers from University of Technology Sydney led by Associate Professor Behzad Fatahi found a solution. With their findings, we can protect buildings affected by large ground deformations because of the rupture.

Fatahi said, “The strike-slip fault rupture can significantly damage structures such as buildings and infrastructure such as bridges.

“The unacceptable performance of conventional deep foundations under strike-slip fault rupture is due to a high level of shear forces in the raft and the large deformation and bending moment in the piles supporting the structures.”

New foundation system

Fatahi and his team have proposed a new composite foundation system. They use inexpensive polymeric materials to protect structures.

“In this novel mitigation technique, the piles are disconnected from the building using an interposed layer of soil which is reinforced using geotextile layers.

“Geotextiles are polymeric materials made of polypropylene or polyethylene, which are manufactured in large sheets that can be easily transported to construction sites.

“The geotextiles embedded in the compacted sand and gravel act as isolator and reduce the impact of large ground deformations due to fault rupture,” said the associate professor.

To evaluate the performance of the team’s composite foundation, Fatahi and his team have developed an advanced 3D model.

Their findings have proven that the new mitigation technique that uses geotextile layers is better. It has a superior performance over the conventional, commonly used pile foundation system under strike-slip fault rupture.

Fatahi said, “Considering an increasing world population and a need to construct more infrastructure such as bridges and buildings, this novel new foundation system can significantly improve the safety of infrastructure and substantially decrease fatality and damage due to large ground deformations.”

Going forward, the team is trying to extend the solution for more protection. Specifically, protection of structures affected by ground subsidence due to mining and tunnelling activities.

Perhaps if they can utilize polymer from University of Bath’s scientists, that’d be good because it’s sustainable. But I don’t know if xylose polymer is cheap to produce, since this finding needs cheap polymer.

Hopefully, associate professor Fatahi and his team would consider making new foundation system using sustainable materials.


Recycling excess CO2 into fuel more efficiently

Ethylene oxide refrigerated liquid. Photo by 102% Yield Wikimedia Commons

We all know that researchers and scientists have been trying to upcycle or recycle excess CO2 in many ways, like fuels. It is a good idea, so that humanity won’t need to depend on fossil fuels too long.

There’s been a recent push to reduce the climactic effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Scientists then have the urge to find the most efficient methods possible.

A new study introduces an electrochemical reaction with polymers to enhance it. It improves the conversion of CO2 to ethylene more efficiently than previous attempts.

Led by professor Andrew Gewirth and graduate student Xinyi Chen from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the results are available in the journal Natural Catalysis.

How does the conversion work?

According to the study, the most common method of converting CO2 is through reaction chamber. Researchers usually allow CO2 gas to flow through a reaction chamber fitted with electrolyte substances.

Gewirth said, “Copper metal is highly selective toward the type of carbon that forms ethylene. Different electrode materials will produce different chemicals like carbon monoxide instead of ethylene, or a mix of other carbon chemicals.

“What we have done in this study is to design a new kind of copper electrode that produces almost entirely ethylene.”

Additionally, the researchers said that previous studies have used other metal and molecular coatings. The purpose is to help direct the CO2-reduction reactions.

But, coatings like those are not stable. They often break down during the reaction process and separate from the electrodes.

“What we did differently in this study was to combine the copper ions and polymers into a solution, then apply that solution to an electrode, entraining the polymer into the copper,” said Chen.

In the lab, the team found that electrodes with polymers were less likely to break down. They also produced more stable chemical intermediates. Meaning, more efficient ethylene production.

Chen said, “We were able to convert CO2 to ethylene at a rate of up to 87%, depending on the electrolyte used. That is up from previous reports of conversion rates of about 80% using other types of electrodes.”

“With the development of economic sources of electricity, combined with the increased interest in CO2-reduction technology, we see great potential for commercialization of this process,” Gewirth added.

Again, if xylose polymer above could help with this conversion, I think it’d be great. But I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know if it’s possible or not.

Nonetheless, we should be thankful of these findings and studies. They all help to reach an eco-friendlier Earth in the future.



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