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Scientists find a way to make plastic from sulphur

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found a way to make plastic polymers from sulphur. This new material is less harmful to the environment as it can be made from the waste products of crude oil. Sulphur is an abundant element that can be found as mineral deposits around the world.

This discovery presents a suitable alternative to carbon-based plastics. However, unlike carbon, sulphur cannot form a stable chain of polymers on its own. To form these chains, the sulphur usually needs to be reacted with organic cross-linker molecules through a process called ‘inverse vulcanisation’. This process requires high temperatures and can take a long time to form stable polymers.

New process is quicker and easier

The scientists at the University of Liverpool’s Stephenson Institute of Renewable Energy have discovered how to make this process quicker, easier and by using lower temperatures. They have created a new catalytic process for inverse vulcanisation that increases the polymer yield, improves the strength of the bonds between molecules, reduces reaction time and lowers the required temperatures.

“Making polymers out of sulphur is a potential game-changer. To be able to produce useful plastic materials from sulphur, a by-product of petroleum, could reduce society’s reliance on polymers made from petroleum itself. In addition, these sulphur polymers may be easier to recycle, which opens up exciting possibilities for reducing the current use of plastics,” says Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool.

Plastics made from sulphur have many uses

“There is also the scope for unique new polymers with unprecedented properties. The properties of sulfur are very different to carbon, and this has already opened up a world of possible applications for sulfur polymers including thermal imaging lenses, batteries, water purification and human health,” he explains.

“We made the key discovery when we decided to look to the acceleration of traditional rubber vulcanisation for inspiration. This research now marks a significant step forward in the development of inverse vulcanized polymers,” he continues.

“It makes inverse vulcanization more widely applicable, efficient, eco-friendly and productive than the previous routes, not only broadening the fundamental chemistry itself but also opening the door for the industrialization and broad application of these fascinating new materials in many areas of chemical and material science,” concluded Dr Hasell.

Synthetic polymers, such as plastic and nylon, are among the most manufactured materials on the planet. We create nearly 350 million tonnes of plastic every year from oil-based resources. This new discovery for sulphur-based plastic could change the way we consume non-renewable resources, leading to a more sustainable plastics industry.

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Written by Joshua Oates

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