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UNT System: Resource magazine >> A future in plastics

A future in plastics: U N T scientists work to build a better polymer by Kelley ReeseToday, the pans we cook in, the cars we drive and the toys we play with are made possible by polymers, which have made living more convenient and affordable.
     Polymeric materials, commonly known as plastics, are in the products that help us grow older with ease and keep our children safe. Polymers are in our furniture and our clothes. They help keep our food safe and our world connected.
      In just a few decades, we have come to consider the extraordinary properties of plastics as nothing out of the ordinary.

New and improved
   At the University of North Texas, Witold Brostow, Ph.D., leads an international team faculty members, visiting professors, postdoctoral researchers and students in continuing the polymeric evolution.
    Under Brostow's direction, the researchers at the UNT Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials work to discover new properties and uses for plastics.
The primary function of LAPOM is to find ways to improve the properties of existing materials or to create new ones that are scratch-resistant, have low friction, survive high temperatures and can sustain great impacts. As more car and airplane parts are being replaced by plastics, the demand for such materials is growing.
he UNT Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials is one of the leading polymer science and engineering labs in the world.     UNT's lab is one of the leading polymer science and engineering laboratories in the world. And each January, as chair of the POLYCHAR (Polymer Characterization) Scientific Committee, Brostow organizes a POLYCHAR World Forum at UNT with participants from at least 40 countries.
    Currently, some of the research in the lab is aimed at improving polymer coatings including those used on cookware.
    "Many people use Teflon-covered frying pans because foods don't stick," says Brostow. "Yet, the surface is so easily scratched, the pans have to be handled with extreme care."
    The researchers hope to create a material that will simultaneously have low friction (no stick) and high scratch resistance. And although more work is needed, Brostow believes the results so far are quite promising.
    If successful, the new coating would mean you could use a trusty metal spatula to flip your morning flapjacks without destroying your pan while also having them slide right out onto the plate once they're finished cooking.
    And while most cooks would laud such an advance in morning fry-up technology, for the scientists it is a fairly complex task.
    "The two properties are almost exclusive of each other, which means we have to develop one product that is essentially two," Brostow says.

Tests and more tests
   The team members look for the best molecular structure for the materials they want to create to meet their requirements. Sometimes they create them by chemical modification, and other times they create them by blending commercial epoxies with other materials.
Witold Brostow leads an international team of scientists at UNT, working to discover new properties and uses for plastics.    But before they do either, a program of unique 3-D computer simulations is used. Molecular structures are created on a computer by Ricardo Simoes, a doctoral student in materials science from Portugal. The program allows the researchers to specify the properties they want such as flexibility and hardness and then see what the structure for such a material might be.
    The program then tests the computer-generated material, applying forces to determine the amount of stress it can withstand before breaking down and allowing the researchers to see how the material failed.
    Once a material with a defined composition has been selected, a number of experimental tests determine its usability. One such test the scratch test employs a diamond blade hooked up to sensors that monitor the blade's force and the material's behavior.
An extruder is used to melt and mold plastic pellets into samples for study.   
Bernard Bujard, a UNT graduate student, conducts most of LAPOM's scratch tests and measures a material's viscoelasticity by recording its ability to heal.
    Developing materials with high healing capabilities is important to LAPOM, not only for the improved cookware coating, but also for the surface protection of materials such as ceramics and metals.
    Other research at the lab deals with polymeric materials for automotive, telecommunication, biotechnology, medical, chemical and agricultural applications. The work has been funded by Volvo, Ford, Texas Instruments, Dow Chemical, Alcon, the National Science Foundation, NASA and NATO.

Classroom research
   The research conducted at LAPOM occurs in an atmosphere of teamwork and shared expertise, which is nurtured by Brostow's broad interpretation of teaching.
    "The lab is not only a place for research, but also a classroom," he says. "Some people believe research and teaching are opposing ideas, but this does not need to be the case. Students working on research are learning how to solve problems and are acquiring the tools of the trade. When they finish, they are able to apply those tools on their own."
    Brostow says the best part of his work is shaping students as researchers. These include students in the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a two-year residential program that allows high school juniors and seniors to finish high school while completing their first two years of college.
    Several of the TAMS students working in LAPOM have received national honors, including Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships. Their projects have ranged from developing better ways to attach prosthetics to muscle tissue to creating intra-ocular lenses to improve vision.
    All of the students working in LAPOM are learning from the best. The international visiting professors, who usually work in the lab for one- or two-year stints, are among the world's finest polymer scientists.
    Brostow himself is president of the International Council of Materials Education, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, winner of the Fred A. Schwab International Award of the Society of Plastics Engineers, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences of Mexico and of the Union for Polymer Research in Berlin. In 1999 he received an honorary doctorate from the Lvivska Politechnika National University in Ukraine, only the second awarded by the school since World War II.
    As a Regents Professor of materials science at UNT, he devotes at least half of his teaching workload to introductory-level courses in addition to supervising graduate students.
    Whether creating a new molecular structure for a polymeric substance to improve modern life, or teaching the talented students at UNT, Brostow is ensuring that Texas has a major scientific influence in the world.

 LAPCOM researchers

The international visiting professors working in LAPOM with Witold Brostow are:

  • Michael Bratychak, Volodymyr Donchak and Olena Shyshchak Lvivska Politechnika National University or Lviv Tech in Ukraine
  • Victor M. Castano National University of Mexico
  • Michael Hess University of Duisburg in Germany
  • Magdalena Jaklewicz Cracow University of Technology in Poland
  • Pablo Montemartini Argentinian National University, Mar del Plata
  • Jean-Marc Saiter University of Rouen in France
  • R.P. Singh National Indian Institute of Technology
  • Juergen Springer Technical University of Berlin



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