Playing with plastic pays off for student
Aug 24, 2004
by Caitlin Crawshaw
Hongbing Chen: Looking for better ways to produce polymers.
The chair you’re sitting on, your shoes, car bumper, frying pan and even the shirt you’re wearing have something in common–all may contain polymers.
Polymers–or plastics–are commonly used in a plethora of consumer goods, and a doctoral student in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering hopes to find more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to produce them. Hongbing Chen’s work has earned him the Extrusion Division/Lew Erwin Memorial Scholarship from the Society of Plastic Engineering.
The international prize consists of $2,500 and is awarded to only one graduate student working on a project related to polymer extrusion.
Extrusion is the process whereby blends of plastics are shaped and formed, determining the physical qualities of the finished plastic product. The process occurs within a sealed metal box, and involves two screws which rotate in unison, stirring the melted plastic concoction.
“It’s hard to see the processes inside an extruder,” Chen explained. Researchers have struggled to find ways to refine the process in order to produce plastics with particular mechanical properties.
If the process can be better controlled, fewer defective polymers will be created, resulting in less waste. Improving extrusion will also allow engineers to better combine plastics in recycling processes, Chen said.
“One benefit we can obtain from our study is that we can reprocess polymer in the case of plastic garbage,” said Chen. He explained that understanding extrusion better could improve the quality of items like the recycled plastic benches and picnic tables on campus. The process could make products like these stronger and with smoother surfaces.
Chen’s research is currently being supported by Dupont and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). His work is being co-supervised by Dr. Uttandaraman Sundararaj and Dr. Kumar Nandakumar of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering.
While the cash is nice to have, the greater benefit of the award will be its contribution to his career, said Chen, who received the award at the society’s annual conference in Chicago.
“Because of the award, I’ve had chances to talk with people at the top of the field. They’ve already given me some advice and suggestions for my future career, things that were very helpful,” Chen said. “I think that if I hadn’t received the award I wouldn’t have had the chance to talk with them.”