Researchers smell biomedical potential in use of fragrant molecules to make sustainable polymers

Molecules found in the essential oils of plants—particularly conifers and fruit trees—that are often used in fragrances, cosmetics and other household products can also be applied to the formulation of resins. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England have developed a technique for extracting the molecules, called terpenes, to produce organic polymers. Initially developed for 3D printing, the technique could produce a new generation of sustainable materials for use in biomedical applications or prototyping, said the researchers.

By combining the molecules with sulfur-based organic compounds, called thiols, the resins can be activated by light to form a solid material. Processing the terpenes in this way makes them particularly useful in stereolithography, where objects are built up in multiple layers and fused together under UV light to form 3D objects, said a press release on the university website.

The research will be published in Polymer Chemistry under the title, "Terpene- and Terpenoid-based Polymeric Resins for Stereolithography 3D Printing."

“We need to find sustainable ways of making polymer products that do not rely on petrochemicals,” explained lead author Professor Andrew Dove. “Terpenes have been recognized as having real potential in this search and our work is a promising step toward being able to harness these natural products.”

Different terpenes produce different material properties, and the next step for the team is to investigate those properties more fully to better control them. Although the fragrances are not key to the terpenes’ material properties, researchers are interested to see if they can also be harnessed in some products.

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