Plastic is one of the most useful products ever developed, and it is hard to imagine modern life without it, but it also poses significant disposal problems.
In addition to the plastic that is thrown out on roadsides that results in considerable costs to the government for cleaning it up, there are concerns about the costs of landfilling plastic bottles often used only once before being thrown away.
And recent reports have shown that a staggering amount of small pieces of plastic are found in the ocean. The journal Science reported recently that microscopic bits of plastic are ubiquitous in the world’s oceans, everywhere from the depths to the shorelines.
Another problem with plastic is that it is made from a non-renewable resource, oil. Once the oil reserves are used up, what will take the place of plastic?
Imagine, instead, a polymer product made from natural, renewable resource such as corn. Once the alternative plastic product is used, it naturally biodegrades. And, it can even be used as fertilizer to grow more corn.
That’s exactly the purpose of research being done presently at the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) polymer science department. The research into developing natural, biodegradable alternatives to plastic is being funded by a grant from the Office of Naval Research.
“The Navy is interested in polymers that biodegrade so when a Navy ship is out on the ocean and generates plastic waste through the mess function, they can initiate the degradation of that polymer and dispose of the benign, bio-compatible degradation products overboard,” says Dr. Rob Storey, a professor in the USM polymer science department. “There are international treaties that dictate what large ships can throw overboard. Benefits to other service divisions are possible, as well as technology transfer to the private sector.”
It is difficult to overestimate the potential for biodegradable polymers.
“This is a huge area,” Storey said. “There are a lot of companies interested in the concept of biodegradable polymers because of all of the waste collecting in landfills and lakes. People irresponsibly throw out plastic waste. Coupled with that, there is an interest in creating plastics from bio-renewable sources. We only have so much petroleum. Most of our polymers now are made from petroleum. What companies are interested in doing these days is creating polymers from natural products such as cornstarch. Very often polymers made from natural buildings blocks are naturally degradable in the environment.”
The intention is to grow a starch crop like corn, biorefine the corn to make building blocks for polymers, and then the polymers degrade back into nutrients that go into the soil to create more crops.
“The whole idea is a sustainable technology in the sense we can’t sustain a technology where we are pumping a finite resource like oil,” Storey said. “USM polymer science is actively engaged in that area.”
Other USM research for the military includes doing research for the Army into developing lightweight suits for soldiers that can repel chemical warfare agents, but can also allow sweat to transpire out to prevent soldiers from getting too hot. The polymer suit would allow water to pass through the suit and get away from the skin, while protecting wearers from external chemicals.
The USM polymer program is also doing research for the Department of Energy regarding synthesizing water-soluble polymers that can be used to enhance oil recovery from existing oil wells.
“This is an interesting application,” Storey said. “You put a polymer solution in water, flood the well with the solution, and it pushes oil up to the surface where you can get at it. There is potential to get more oil recovered. When you first strike a cavity of oil, it is usually under natural pressure. That is what creates the gusher you see in the movies. Once that natural pressure is gone, there is still a lot of oil down there. You want to get it out, but you are working against gravity.”
The polymer department is also very active in the coatings area, everything from developing safer, more environmentally sound house paints to industrial coatings.
“You name it, we’re involved in it,” Storey said. “One of the themes of our research here is to create coatings that pollute less. Coatings have solvents that evaporate into the air and cause pollution. The kinds of coatings we are developing here either use water to replace the solvents or, in some cases, there aren’t any solvents at all in the coatings. That fulfills the societal need to reduce pollution, and also makes the coatings better performing in some cases. And, they can be less expensive. Solvents are expensive and you are just throwing them away. If you can replace solvents with water, water is relatively free. And there is less worker exposure to fumes.”
The polymer science department is also committed to economic development through technology transfer. Taking products from the lab to the shelves of stores helps the economy. An example of that is the Southern Diversified Products Company, a spinoff private company that markets environmentally safer paints.
The university is also involved in acquiring endowments that consist of intellectual properties that could be exploited. Two contributions of intellectual property have been donated to the university by BP and Shell Development Company, the research arm of Shell Chemical.
“These gifts to the university of intellectual properties are being exploited by the university,” Storey said. “We are attempting to develop the ideas, reduce them to practice, and perhaps license them to companies that could manufacture the products in Mississippi or actually create companies. The idea would be to create a kind of polymer belt here in South Mississippi, which would be driven by the concentration of expertise found here in the polymer science department.”
Housed at USM to help promote economic development through better science is the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI), which is the industrial-business outreach arm of the USM polymer program.
“The polymer industry in Mississippi has been designated as a strategic business cluster for the state,” said MPI director Dr. James Evans. “There is a high percentage of polymer industry jobs in the state,” Evans said. “Mississippi ranks eighth in the nation in polymer industry jobs per capita. A significant portion of the population does work in the polymer industry, and that creates strength for the polymer industry by having benefits from being in a cluster. MPI exists to make the technical and scientific capabilities here at USM available to industry members in Mississippi to make them more productive and profitable. We provide services like workforce training, technical services, analytical testing support and product development support to the industry members in Mississippi in a way that makes them more productive and profitable.”
Evans believes polymer industries have untapped potential for jobs growth. Jobs in the polymer industry have grown significantly in the past 10 years while overall manufacturing jobs in the state have decreased. He believes the environment that is created by helping existing polymer companies be more successful attracts other companies to the area. A case in point is Hybrid Plastics, California’s leading nanotechnology firm that recently moved to Hattiesburg to get access to polymer science and engineering expertise at USM.
“Other companies have moved here also because of the polymer science support,” Evans said.
One important component of that for industries is getting specialized workforce training. Workforce training for the polymer industry isn’t available just anywhere. MPI works through Petal High School and junior colleges to provide training courses. Plans are being made to implement the polymer training at more state high schools in the future. Students who receive training at the high school level can either continue their education at junior and four-year colleges. Or they can go right to work in the industry with some developed skills in polymer science technology.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.