University of Liverpool scientists discover a better way to make polymers out of sulphur

The research was led by University of Liverpool and involved collaboration with the University of Lancaster

Sulphur is a waste product from the refining of crude oil and gas in the petrochemicals industry, which generates huge stockpiles of sulphur outside refineries.
Sulphur is a waste product from the refining of crude oil and gas in the petrochemicals industry, which generates huge stockpiles of sulphur outside refineries.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered a new process to make polymers out of sulphur, which could provide a way of making plastic that is less harmful to the environment.

Sulphur is an abundant chemical element and can be found as a mineral deposit across the world. It is a waste product from the refining of crude oil and gas in the petrochemicals industry, which generates huge stockpiles of sulphur outside refineries.

Whilst being identified as an interesting possible alternative to carbon in the manufacture of polymers, sulphur cannot form a stable polymer on its own but, as revealed in a process called ‘inverse vulcanisation’, it must be reacted with organic cross-linker molecules to make it stable. This process can require high temperatures, long reaction times, and produce harmful by-products.

However, researchers from the University of Liverpool’s Stephenson Institute of Renewable Energy, working in the field of materials chemistry have made a potentially game-changing discovery.

In a study published in Nature Communications, they report the discovery of a new catalytic process for inverse vulcanisation that reduces the required reaction times and temperatures, whilst preventing the production of harmful by-products. It also increases the reaction yields, improves the physical properties of the polymers, and allows a wider range of cross-linkers to be used.

In modern society, synthetic polymers are ubiquitous to human life and are among the most extensively manufactured materials on earth. However, with nearly 350 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, coupled with increasing  environmental concerns and decreasing petrochemical recourses, there is an urgent need to develop new polymers that are more sustainable.

Dr Tom Hasell, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University, whose group conducted the research, said: “Making polymers (plastics) out of sulphur is a potential game changer. To be able to produce useful plastic materials from sulphur, a by-product of petroleum, could reduce society’s reliance on polymers made from petroleum itself. In addition, these sulphur polymers may be easier to recycle, which opens up exciting possibilities for reducing current use of plastics.”

In addition to this is the scope for unique new polymers with unprecedented properties. The properties of sulphur are very different to carbon, and this has already opened up a world of possible applications for sulphur polymers, including thermal imaging lenses, batteries, water purification and human health.

Dr Hasell added: “We made the key discovery when we decided to look to the acceleration of traditional rubber vulcanisation for inspiration. This research now marks a significant step forward in the development of inverse vulcanised polymers. It makes inverse vulcanisation more widely applicable, efficient, eco-friendly and productive than the previous routes, not only broadening the fundamental chemistry itself, but also opening the door for the industrialisation and broad application of these fascinating new materials in many areas of chemical and material science.

The paper ‘Catalytic Inverse Vulcanisation’ is published in Nature Communications.

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