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PlasticsToday Staff

March 23, 2016

2 Min Read
New ‘green’ thermoplastic is 10 times tougher than ABS

A new thermoplastic composed of 50% renewable materials developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, TN) reportedly outperforms commodity polymers such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). The recyclable material can be melted three times and continue to perform to acceptable standards, according to the researchers. It may be able to replace ABS in a range of applications from medical devices and car bumpers to Lego bricks.

The researchers replaced the styrene component in ABS with lignin, a brittle, rigid polymer that, with cellulose, forms the woody cell walls of plants, writes Dawn Levy on the ORNL website. “In doing so, they have invented a solvent-free production process that interconnects equal parts of nanoscale lignin dispersed in a synthetic rubber matrix to produce a meltable, moldable, ductile material that’s at least 10 times tougher than ABS,” explains Levy.

The resulting thermoplastic is called ABL, for acrylonitrile, butadiene, lignin. “We can call it a green product because 50% of its content is renewable, and technology to enable its commercial exploitation would reduce the need for petrochemicals,” said Amit Naskar, leader of ORNL’s Carbon and Composites group. Along with co-inventor Chau Tran, Naskar has filed a patent application for the process to make the new material.

The technology could make use of the lignin-rich biomass byproduct stream from biorefineries and pulp and paper mills. With the prices of natural gas and oil dropping, renewable fuels can’t compete with fossil fuels, so biorefineries are exploring options for developing other economically viable products. Among cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, the major structural constituents of plants, lignin is the most commercially underutilized, according to ORNL.

A paper published in the March 22 edition of Advanced Functional Materials, “A New Class of Renewable Thermoplastics with Extraordinary Performance from Nanostructured Lignin-Elastomers,” describes the material and the solvent-free production process invented by the researchers. A news release on the ORNL website delves into how the researchers determined the best type of lignin, the percentage of lignin in ABL that would achieve the optimal balance between toughness and stiffness and other aspects of the scientific process.

The researchers also plan to study the performance of ORNL’s new thermoplastic in carbon-fiber-reinforced composites.

“More renewable materials will probably be used in the future,” Naskar said. “I’m glad that we could continue work in renewable materials, not only for automotive applications but even for commodity usage.”

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