Liverpool University scientists have discovered a new process to make polymers out of sulfur.
According to the university’s Stephenson Institute of Renewable Energy, the new method could provide a way of making plastic that is less harmful to the environment.
Sulfur is an abundant chemical element and can be found as a mineral deposit across the world.
It is a waste product that is generated while refining of crude oil and gas in the petrochemicals industry.
Whilst being identified as an interesting possible alternative to carbon in the manufacture of polymers, sulfur cannot form a stable polymer on its own.
However, it can be made stable through a process called ‘inverse vulcanization’ where it must react with organic crosslinker molecules.
This process is nevertheless taxing as it requires high temperatures, long reaction times, and produce harmful by-products.
Now Liverpool researchers have reported the discovery of a new catalytic process for inverse vulcanization that reduces the required reaction times and temperatures, whilst preventing the production of harmful by-products.
It also increases the reaction yields, improves the physical properties of the polymers, and allows a wider range of crosslinkers to be used.
Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University, whose group conducted the research, said: “Making polymers (plastics) out of sulfur is a potential game changer.”
“To be able to produce useful plastic materials from sulfur, a by-product of petroleum, could reduce society’s reliance on polymers made from petroleum itself.”
“In addition, these sulfur polymers may be easier to recycle, which opens up exciting possibilities for reducing current use of plastics.
The properties of sulfur are very different to carbon, and this has already opened up new applications for sulfur polymers such as thermal imaging lenses, batteries, water purification and human health.
Image and content: University of Liverpool