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UNT Insider | March 2011 issue | Researchers discover process that strengthens plastic

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Researchers discover process that strengthens plastic

From a UNT News Service press release


Witold Brostow, Regents Professor of materials science and engineering, is pictured with students and researchers in the LAPOM lab.

Plastics are the most popular manufacturing materials in today's economy, but researchers are still trying to engineer the materials to have properties, such as strength and wear resistance, that are more commonly found in metals.

Materials scientists manipulate the properties of plastics by adding solid fillers and reinforcers to molten plastics, but the addition of the solids increases the viscosity of the liquid, making it more difficult to mold.

Researchers in UNT's Laboratory for Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials recently discovered a process that overcomes this dilemma. By grafting the filler Boehmite with another agent, the researchers were able to improve the adhesion of the filler to the polymer. The improved adhesion results in a polymer melt with a decreased viscosity. This discovery allows manufacturers to produce stronger plastics at lower temperatures, resulting in energy savings and improved production efficiency.

"Materials science has come a long way since Wallace Carothers at DuPont invented nylon on Feb. 28, 1935. Today, if a manufacturer can't find a polymer with the properties that they need then they can go to a lab, like the LAPOM, and have it created," says Witold Brostow, Regents Professor of materials science and engineering and director of LAPOM. Brostow also is the primary investigator on the project.

Improving the strength of plastics allows manufacturers to create products that are traditionally made of metal with lighter weight polymer materials. Replacing metals with plastic composites has a variety of benefits. For instance, vehicle manufacturers can make plastic-bodied cars that are lighter, and therefore get better fuel mileage than their metal-bodied counterparts. The same applies to airplanes; the Boeing Dreamliner has a composite body for that reason, plus less noise in flight and easier maintenance.

The research team included Brostow, Haley Hagg Lobland, a LAPOM staff member and UNT alumna; Piotr Blaszczak, a student at Northwestern University; and Tea Datashvili, associate director of the LAPOM. Their research summary recently was published on the Society of Plastics Engineers website.

Next, the team will explore other possible filler-polymer combinations that produce similar results. The team also plans to patent its findings.

LAPOM is one of the leading polymer science and engineering laboratories in the world. The faculty, staff and students in LAPOM represent several disciplines, including materials engineering, materials science, chemistry, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics.

Students from UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a two-year residential high-school program for exceptionally talented students, regularly work in the lab. Lobland and Blaszczak are both TAMS alumni. Lobland received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious scholarships awarded to students planning careers in mathematics, science and engineering, while attending TAMS in 2001. She also earned a doctoral degree in materials science and engineering from UNT.

Alyssa Yancey with UNT News Service can be reached at Alyssa.yancey@unt.edu.

Read other stories in this issue:

March 2011

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