ANU challenges understanding of plastic decay

johnboy 24 November 2010

The ANU has announced that most of what people thought about why plastic decays in the sun is crap:

Historically scientists have thought that clothes pegs and other plastics left out in the sun become brittle and fail due to a process called autoxidation. Exposure to light or heat generates free radicals, which are reactive species that attack the polymeric chains in the plastic causing them to rearrange and break. Crucially, each ‘broken’ polymer chain is then thought to attack the next polymer chain, leading to a cascading failure that results in visible damage to the plastic.

However, the research led by Associate Professor Coote suggests that most types of plastics should actually be inherently resistant to this process and the reason damage occurs at all is because most polymer chains contain a small number of defect structures, formed during their manufacture.

“The good news is that if you can remove these defect structures you could greatly improve the stability of many plastics,” said Ms Anya Gryn’ova.

The findings of this research have led to a number of recommendations to prolong the shelf-life of plastics, including using improved manufacturing reaction conditions and choosing more resistant polymers for long term plastic design. Conversely, the information gained in this study will also assist in creating improved biodegradable plastics.

Quantum chemistry and super computers to the rescue.


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