The Reporter
ssue 492, 29 September 2003
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A revolution in polythene


Tom McLeishPolythene could now be made as springy as an elastic band, match the properties of tissue or bone for medical parts, or engineered to absorb the energy of impact for car or helicopter parts, according to major research collaborations linking academic and industry. Now a team of researchers, led by Leeds, have discovered new ways to control how plastics are produced.

Project director Professor Tom McLeish (pictured left) said: “Humble polythene will never be the same again. It’s no longer one material. It’s now a whole gamut of different materials, which can be used in a thousand different ways.

“Until now, we’ve had to take what plastics gave us, without being able to predict what chemistry will provide what we need. Although we could produce stronger polymers, we only had a vague understanding of what in the process gave us that strength.”

Complex neutron experiments in Durham showed the researchers exactly what the polymer molecules were doing during the production process. With the help of other colleagues in Bradford, Sheffield, Cambridge and Oxford, and with industrial partners, the Leeds scientists used these new insights to draw up a mathematical model of polythene’s molecular structure, allowing ‘designer plastics’ to be created by computer for the first time. Their findings are published in the latest issue of Science.



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