Environmentally Friendly Plastics @ Wingate

Professor to Research an Environmentally Friendly Plastic Creation at Wingate 

Øystein Fjeldberg, Staff Writer

          This summer Wingate University professor Dr. Shakena Daniel started her work on a research project that could have a great impact. The goal is to create a kind of plastic that can be disposed with no harmful effects to the environment.

Plastics are widely used in the world today due to their strong durability, flexibility, and versatility, and are popular in packaging, furniture, toys, and buildings, only to mention a few. The durability comes from its structure; plastics are long molecule chains with repeating patterns. Breaking through a chain requires great force, as they are based on strong bonds, and the chain has to be broken apart all the way through before it is destroyed.

The strong durability is also the source of one of plastics’ biggest issues. The average plastic bottle takes 450 years to break down in nature; those made with a plastic material called PET can never break down naturally. Due to the widespread use, controlling the plastic waste has become necessary in order to prevent damage to the environment.

Plastics can cause harm to wildlife and ecosystems, as plastic debris can be ingested by animals, injuring or poisoning them. Over the years, currents in the Pacific Ocean have collected tons of plastics in a part of the ocean that has been nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Out on the open sea floating pieces of plastic are exposed to the sun, which breaks the plastics into tiny particles.

Instinctively, this might sound like it eliminates the problem, but the plastic particles are often toxic, which poison the waters and the native wildlife, and their tiny size makes them almost impossible to control. For these reasons, there have been numerous attempts to create a plastic that break down naturally into harmless chemicals.

This is what Dr. Daniel is trying to accomplish. If her research project is successful, the plastic will still have the characteristics that make it so popular in use, but with the key difference being that it can easily be broken down into harmless chemicals. She will do this by changing the repeating pattern of the plastic chain slightly; the repeating links of carbon will be replaced with links of the element boron.

By doing this, the plastic will still be durable for what we use it for, but we will know how to easily and harmlessly dispose it once it is no longer needed. The creation of this kind of plastic has been attempted in different ways before, but the plastic has always ended up being unusable due to inherent brittleness.

Dr. Daniel will do it in a slightly different way than those before her. Her “recipe” for the plastic is more lenient and more allowing for mistakes, which could give her a higher chance of success. Dr. Daniel is assisted by undergraduate student Dan Freeman, who does the project as part of his “Introduction to Chemical Research” class.

The purpose of the class is to introduce students pursuing a chemistry major to research work by having them assist a professor with their research. During the summer Freeman and Dr. Daniel worked together to make one of the more expensive “ingredients” needed to make the plastic, a chemical called tetrol, from scratch. This fall Dr. Daniel will be assisted by Freeman again when she tries to create the actual plastic.

Edited by: Sara Gunter

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