Our research group has recently discovered how to polymerize triglycerides such as soybean oil along with common monomeric feedstocks such as styrene to form what is known as a â€œthermoplastic elastomerâ€ (TPE). A TPE is a general category of plastics that range from soft and sticky (one use is in PostIt Notes) to soft elastic materials (used in the soles of shoes) to hard pliable rubbers (used in tires and roads). The vast majority of TPEs are derived from combinations of styrene and butadiene; butadiene is a energy intensive byproduct of ethylene cracking from crude oil. It is gas phase at room temperature and combined with its extreme flammability explains a number of major accidents in TPE production facilities.
Our technology for replacing butadiene in TPEs not only increases safety and is far more environmentally friendly, it is also far more economical since soybean oil costs roughly four times less than butadiene. The technology is very new though, and we have much to learn about the range of physical properties we can achieve with this system. We are also learning how to convert waste products from biofuel refineries such as glycerine into useful polymers using similar techniques. The interested intern will learn about some modern synthetic polymer chemistry, polymer characterization, and some basic fundamentals of block copolymers, self assembly, and their applications as thermoplastic elastomers.
Mentor: Eric Cochran, associate professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Iowa State University