Perfecting a powerful polymer

- Vimala Jeevanandam

Chemist Jeremy Wulff with now-graduated PhD student Jun Chen.

UVic team’s breakthrough makes a highly durable industrial plastic accessible for wider use in automobiles and other applications.

On the route to building a more energy-efficient vehicle, weight is always top of mind. Now, a UVic chemist and his students have improved an automotive polymer that may help in that quest. 

Jeremy Wulff’s team has synthesized a plastic that could replace metal to make vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient.

Polydicyclopentadiene (PDCPD) is an incredibly strong plastic used in heavy-duty construction vehicles such as backhoes, excavators and snowmobiles. But it has a few major problems that made it unappealing for broader applications. In addition to having a foul smell and being resistant to adhesives, traditional PDCPD isn’t able to change properties. 

“Think about how different plastic bags, a plastic chair, synthetic carpet fibre, and the absorbent filling in disposable diapers are,” says Wulff. “These different properties can be traced back to the differences in the chemistry of the individual building blocks from which each plastic is made. But with PDCPD you don't have this level of tunability.”

So Wulff and his students set to work on the material’s chemistry. By adding an extra chemical handle onto the polymer’s molecular structure, they addressed these issues, while also laying the groundwork for making the material recyclable. Those changes did not affect the polymer’s remarkable strength and ability to withstand temperatures up to 400 C.

“Its durability comes from its molecular make-up,” says Wulff, Canada Research Chair in Bioactive Small Molecule Synthesis. “PDCPD is extensively crosslinked—which is a fancy way of saying that whatever huge part you make from it is basically one big molecule. Pretty impressive when you think about it—imagine the entire body of your truck cab being made from one gigantic molecule!”

Wulff’s team has recently stepped up their production from milligram scale to hundred-gram scale and is looking for an industrial partner to begin pilot-plant production en route to commercialization. The group also demonstrated reaction-injection molding of their polymer—a key step in the production of automotive parts and other consumer goods.

Funding for this project came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Ideas to Innovation Program, and Green Centre Canada. 

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Keywords: chemistry, sustainability, environment, science

People: Jeremy Wulff


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