Microscale Polymer Processing project. Photo: University of Leeds
In his essay entitled “Plastic,” Roland Barthes commented that “plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible.” The notion of transformation is embodied in the Greek verb plassein from which the term plastic is derived, which means “to mold or shape a soft substance.” From this conceptual basis, we might say that plastic is directly associated with humanity’s impulse to manipulate matter.
How fitting, then, that scientists have recently taken the next step toward manipulating plastic itself. In an article published in Science, researchers at the University of Leeds and Durham University announced a solution to an age-old industry problem. Their Microscale Polymer Processing project uses software to predict the behavior of various plastics at a macromolecular level, which the scientists claim will vastly improve upon the current trial-and-error model of polymer development and application.
The software is composed of two types of code: one that predicts the molecular behavior of a polymer, and another that predicts the shape the molecules will assume when mixed chemically. According to Daniel Reed from the University of Leeds, "Plastics are used by everybody, every day, but until now their production has been effectively guesswork. This breakthrough means that new plastics can be created more efficiently and with a specific use in mind, with benefits to industry and the environment."
The new software is predicted to be particularly useful in determining the performance attributes of bioplastics intended to replace petroleum-based polymers. Leeds’s Tom McLeish states that "by changing two or three numbers in the computer code, we can adapt all the predictions for new bio-polymer sources."
If the new program fulfills its promised potential, it may be possible to achieve both precise control over material and promote environmental stewardship—two goals that have previously been in conflict in the plastics industry.