KU Affairs

Research to Make Plastic More Sustainable

September 21, 2018

Researchers the Masdar Institute have worked on a technology in an attempt to improve the ability of certain plastics to delay oxidation – the natural process that causes food to spoil. The research supports the UAE’s position as a regional leader in the international plastics industry.  

Masdar Institute Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering Dr. Kumar Shanmugam led the research project in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Polymers Company (Borouge) – a petrochemical company that provides innovative, value creating plastics solutions and a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Austria’s Borealis. The resulting plastic provides a better barrier for the preservation, safety and transportation of food, while also being aesthetically pleasing and offering a wide range of uses due to its transparency.

“With the right combination of nano-materials, dosing levels and process parameters, a significant improvement in oxygen barrier performance can be achieved. Therefore, this study is a step toward the development of a commercially viable solution,” said Wim Roels, Chief Executive Officer of Borouge Pte Ltd.

“Partnering with regional industry leaders like Borouge to address their technology challenges is critically important to Masdar Institute’s mission of positioning Abu Dhabi as a knowledge hub and engine for socio-economic growth,” said Dr. Steve Griffiths, Vice President for Research, Masdar Institute.  

“The research by Masdar Institute scientists has been aimed at strengthening the UAE’s petrochemical industry, and in turn, boosting the UAE industrial sector’s share of GDP from the current 10% to the targeted 25% by 2025.”  

Dr. Shanmugam’s research enhances the ability of packaging polymers to prevent oxygen diffusion – when oxygen seeps into sealed food containers and speeds up the food spoilage process – in addition to creating high-quality food containers that retain the freshness of foods for longer.  

Borouge provided the polyethylene and polypropylene resins, while the blending materials were fabricated in the labs of Masdar Institute. Permeation tests to measure oxygen barrier resistance took place at Borouge’s facilities.  

“We developed different nano-composite blends for polymers made out of three different materials – silicate nano-clays, carbon nanotubes and graphene,” Dr. Shanmugam explained.  

The silicate nano-clays, graphene and carbon nanotubes essentially create an obstacle for the oxygen, making it difficult to pass through. Without such a special design, oxygen would permeate straight through the plastic.  

With this new solution, oxygen’s path is obstructed, making the diffusion path more difficult, which significantly reduces the amount of oxygen that passes through the plastic. The research was supported by Masdar Institute’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Yanbin Cui, and Dr. Shailesh Kundalwal, Banting Post-doctoral Fellow, University of Toronto.  

“Each material increased the plastic’s barrier performance, with nanoclay reducing oxygen diffusion by 15%, graphene by 25%, and carbon nanotubes by 40%,” Dr. Shanmguam added.  

Not only do these coatings make it more difficult for oxygen to pass through the plastic and spoil food, they also increase the plastic’s longevity by preventing the plastic layers from splitting apart. Thus, the nano-coatings could help to produce long-lasting containers, which would in turn reduce the number of containers that end up in dust bins and landfills, resulting in both financial and environmental savings.

While graphene and carbon nanotubes have a higher barrier performance, they made the plastic less transparent and dark. Nanoparticles offered the best of both worlds – transparency and improved barrier performance.  

Dr. Shanmguam believes that graphene- and carbon nanotube composite polymers could be very well suited in other applications, where oxygen diffusion is undesirable and transparency is not required, such as in underground pipes, including oil and gas pipelines.

Masdar Institute’s research and development efforts to enhance the plastics produced by local petrochemical manufactures such as Borouge ultimately are intended to give the country a significant competitive advantage in the plastics market. 

Erica Solomon
News and Features Writer
27 June 2016