Scientists from the University of Bath in the UK have developed a sustainable polymer using xylose, a sugar found in wood.
The new polymer is a member of the polyether family. It could be used in a variety of applications, including being a building block for polyurethane, used for example in mattresses and shoe soles. It could also be a bio-derived alternative to polyethylene glycol, a chemical widely used in biomedicine, or in polyethylene oxide, which is sometimes used as an electrolyte in batteries.
Xylose, also known as wood sugar, is one of the most abundant carbohydrates on earth, second only to glucose. Apart from comprising 5-20% of hardwoods, xylose is a major component of straw, corncobs, and many other plant materials.
The new polymer could reduce reliance on crude oil products and its properties can be easily controlled to make the material flexible or crystalline. Added functionality could be added to it by binding other chemical groups such as fluorescent probes or dyes to the sugar molecule for biological or chemical sensing applications.
Tweaking the physical and chemical properties of bio-derived polymers has previously been a very difficult thing to do. The Bath researchers discovered that combining two mirror-image chemical forms of xylose results in a stronger and more adaptable material. They have filed a patent for their technology and are seeking industrial collaborators for further development.
The reliance of plastics and polymers on fossil fuels is a major problem. Bio-derived polymers, such as this new one, are an important part of the effort to make plastics sustainable.
Photo, posted January 25, 2017, courtesy of Keith Double via Flickr.