Science Nation: 'Yellow chemistry' turns sulfur waste into plastics

Science Nation

From NSF Science Nation, 08/17/2015  --  New chemical recipe could turn sulfur waste into key ingredient for lighter, cheaper electric car batteries

While many scientists are hard at work on "green chemistry" projects that will benefit the environment, there are a handful of researchers at the University of Arizona who are starting a trend of their own--"yellow chemistry." That's because their main ingredient is sulfur, a yellow waste product from petroleum refining and natural gas production.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), chemists Jeff Pyun and Richard Glass and a team of collaborators have mixed up a chemical recipe for sulfur-based plastic, and they’ve already used it to make everything from toys and lenses to a 45 record. But, ultimately, they're thinking of much bigger applications with this new class of plastics.

Pyun says the annual production of sulfur is approximately 70 million tons per year, the majority of which comes from oil and gas production. While much of that is used up making sulfuric acid and fertilizer, there are still millions of tons left over.

He envisions using sulfur waste to make lighter, cheaper electric car batteries capable of holding four to five times the charge we've come to expect. Because of its high refractive index and excellent mid-infrared transparency, sulfur also holds potential for optical applications, such as night vision devices, thermal monitoring sensors and medical imaging hardware.

This research is the result of a collaboration that includes the following researchers: Kookheon Char, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Seoul National University and director of the National Creative Research Initiative-Center for Intelligent Hybrids; Yung-Eun Sung, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Seoul National University; and Michael MacKay, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Delaware.

This research was supported by NSF award #1305773, Sustainable Chemistry, Engineering and Materials (SusChEM): Electroactive Polymers via Inverse Vulcanization of Elemental Sulfur.

To review more supporting content online, visit the NSF Science Nation website.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer