A research team led by Professor Masami Kamigaito and Lecturer Mineto Uchiyama of the Graduate School of Engineering at Nagoya University and Professor Kotaro Sato of the Tokyo Institute of Technology built on the knowledge of Nobel laureate Giulio Natta in the field of polymers. Dating back to the 1960s, a technique invented by Natta, the so-called asymmetric cationic polymerization, was brought to life which enabled the creation of polymers but could not still control the molecular weight of polymers. The higher the molecular weight of polymers is, the tougher and more resistant the material is. In other words, molecular weight plays a significant part in the engineering of plastics, as it reflects on the properties and performance of plastics.
The researchers based in Japan made a scientific breakthrough and succeeded in controlling the molecular weight of polymers. The secret of their success lies in the merging of two techniques: their living cationic polymerization and Natta’s asymmetric cationic polymerization. Thanks to the chemical controllability of molecular weight and high optical activity, polymers with higher resistance to chemical and environmental destruction are produced.
The scientists began to experiment with benzofuran, a compound that contains unique properties. Not only does benzofuran derive from natural resources but it is also a precursor of the polymer polybenzofuran: a polymer with promising potential as an alternative material in plastics. Moving back to benzofuran and its qualities, the compound is chemically recyclable and can form rigid polymers via its high glass transition temperature. As a result, the polymer derived from benzofuran can withstand extreme temperatures, and thus can maintain its hard shape. To sum it up, benzofuran is viewed as a useful compound to produce sustainable transparent thermoplastics.
The novel polymerization method can stabilize the molecular weight and optical activity of polybenzofuran, and therefore the precise polymerization reactions will lead to the development of new functional polymer materials. Furthermore, Lecturer Uchiyama believes to have found an alternative to the omnipresent polystyrene: one of the primary plastics used in everyday life products, such as plastic containers, cases and packaging. It is no other than polybenzofuran, a polymer with a similar structure to polystyrene, yet with promising potential as a future alternative packaging material. There is more to compound polybenzofuran, as Mr. Uchiyama claims:
"While polybenzofuran is not used as a commercially available plastic, it has a stiffer molecular structure and a higher glass transition temperature than polystyrene. We see it being used as a new plastic with good thermal properties. Furthermore, its unique optical properties could give additional functionalities"