Scientists have done serious supercomputer number-crunching to design … plastic molecules that won’t degrade in the sun.
That may counter-intuitive in an era
when we’re desperately trying to produce better biodegradable
plastics, the idea is that if plastic objects are made more resistant
then they’ll be thrown away less often, reducing the need for
replacements and disposal of old plastic in landfills.
Scientists at The Australian National University suggests that if you refine the
manufacturing conditions to reduce defects, you’ll get plastics that
degrade much more slowly. Their research involved some highly sophisticated processing on supercomputers along with some quantum chemistry, all to work out the process by which plastic molecules break down when exposed to the elements.
Until recently science suggested that when plastics are exposed to the sun, the sunlight and air cause free radical particles to form, which then attack the polymer molecules and lead to a chain reaction of breakdowns–leading to that whitening you often see on old plastic, and your plastic clothes pins falling off the line.
The Australian research has changed this picture, and suggests that plastics should actually be very resistant to this breakdown process. The structural breakdowns are instead caused by built-in molecule-level defects that are introduced to the plastic during manufacturing. Tighten that process up, and you have products built to last.
[Image via Flickr user keela84]