My passion for everything plastic

5 Feb 2015

When I started looking at subjects to study for my undergraduate course, I struggled to find exactly what I wanted to study until I came across
the BEng in Polymer Engineering.

I always had a passion for materials in general, and polymers just stood out for me. When I was telling my family and friends what I was studying, the response I got was usually the same - 'Why do you want to study plastics?' They would go on to say they didn't know anyone who works with, or has ever studied, plastics. I thought the answer to this question was simple for me, and I would say, 'Look around you and you will find that plastics are everywhere'.

It is almost impossible to find any everyday commodity that doesn't contain polymeric materials in some way or form - mobile telephones, computers, televisions, cosmetics, paints, ships and aircraft, pharmaceuticals, washing machines and even the clothes you wear. Polymers are one of a few advanced materials that have managed to find applications in almost every field I can think of, from dose control in biomedical applications to structural components used in the aerospace industry.

The reaction I was getting was of surprise, and they realised that polymers were worth specialising in, since they are everywhere around us. I found it exciting answering others' questions, until I met my father in-law's friends after a day out fishing - they certainly did not like plastics at all. The plastic they wanted me to talk about was the debris floating in the Pacific Ocean, the majority of it polymeric materials, estimated to cover an area the size of Wales. I still haven't found an answer they would accept.

The plastics economy is working towards changing the culture of how we relate to plastics, and one of the major advances in most countries is the recycling industry. The introduction and growing trend in the innovation of biodegradable plastics has recently been debated in polymer cycles, as was highlighted on pages 24-24 of the June 2014 issue of Materials World.

There is certainly a growing interest in the topic among materials scientists, as both sides of the debate have a strong focus on the future of the materials we use and their impact on the environment.

Through my passion for materials science, particularly polymers, I am currently a research engineer at the University of Surrey in the Centre for Doctoral Training, focusing on micro and nanomaterials and technologies, and doing some research towards a doctorate qualification in collaboration with AkzoNobel. In my research, I am studying environmentally-friendly waterborne polymer coatings that do not emit volatile compounds into the atmosphere. I am focusing on how nano-sized polymeric particles deform and coalesce in the presence of water.

So, I challenge all of you young aspiring engineers and scientists to champion your material of study, just as I am doing.

Imagine a world without plastic. What would it be like?