At the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies of the University of Bath, researchers have developed a sustainable polymer using xylose—the second most abundant sugar found in nature.
Apart from the fact that the new nature-inspired material brings down the dependence on crude oil products, its properties can even be manipulated easily to make it crystalline or flexible.
According to the researchers of the study, the polymer, which belongs to the polyether family, has a range of applications, for example, as a building block for polyurethane that is used in shoe soles and mattresses; or as a bio-derived alternative to polyethylene glycol, a chemical largely used in bio-medicine, or to polyethylene oxide that is used sometimes as an electrolyte in batteries.
The researchers also added that this versatile polymer could be given additional functionality by binding other chemical groups like fluorescent probes or dyes to the sugar molecule, for biological or chemical sensing applications.
The researchers can easily synthesize hundreds of grams of the material and expect that production would be scalable quickly. The study was headed by Dr Antoine Buchard, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Reader at the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies.
“We’re very excited that we’ve been able to produce this sustainable material from a plentiful natural resource—wood. The reliance of plastics and polymers on dwindling fossil fuels is a major problem, and bio-derived polymers—those derived from renewable feedstocks such as plants—are part of the solution to make plastics sustainable,” stated Dr Antoine Buchard.
This polymer is particularly versatile because its physical and chemicals properties can be tweaked easily, to make a crystalline material or more of a flexible rubber, as well as to introduce very specific chemical functionalities. Until now this was very difficult to achieve with bio-derived polymers.
Dr Antoine Buchard, Royal Society University Research Fellow and Reader, Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies, University of Bath
“This means that with this polymer, we can target a variety of applications, from packaging to healthcare or energy materials, in a more sustainable way,” added Dr Antoine Buchard.
Similar to all sugars, xylose exists in two forms, which are mirror images of each other—referred to as D and L.
Although the naturally occurring D-enantiomer of xylose has been used for the polymer, the researchers have demonstrated that blending it with the L-form renders the polymer much stronger.
The researchers have filed a patent for their technology and are now looking to work with industrial collaborators to further improve production and examine the applications of the new materials.
The research was financially supported by the Royal Society and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is part of UK Research and Innovation.
McGuire, T. M., et al. (2021) Control of Crystallinity and Stereocomplexation of Synthetic Carbohydrate Polymers from d‐ and l‐Xylose. Angewandte Chemie. doi.org/10.1002/anie.202013562.