November 27, 2002
That famous line from the film, The Graduate, has proven to be prophetic. Plastic is everywhere. In fact, about 90 percent of whatever consumers purchase has some plastic content, says Daniel De Kee, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Tulane Institute of Macromolecular Engineering and Science.
The future of plastics, or polymers, is the focus of TIMES, which unites researchers from four engineering departments as well as the physics and chemistry departments. According to De Kee, polymer research is an excellent opportunity for Tulane to engage in the multi-billion-dollar plastics industry, and in the process, benefit Louisiana.
The state, with its 185 plastics operations, ranks second in the nation in the production of raw materials used for manufacturing plastic products. The institute received a major shot in the arm in April when it was awarded a congressional appropriation of $2.5 million administered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The grant will help fund the institutes basic and applied research on advanced plastics, some of which could be useful in space and aeronautical applications. The funding has already enabled TIMES to purchase new equipment. Some existing equipment also has been upgraded, says De Kee. TIMES started five years ago with the arrival of De Kee, a specialist on the flow properties of polymers. Canvassing the engineering school and the science departments, De Kee identified a number of people who were all were involved in some aspect of polymer research.
There are 16 people with more or less 16 different aspects of polymer research that they bring to the table, says De Kee. Our group has tremendous potential for advanced research in the polymer field. The institute has already begun to build alliances with the states polymer industry, having recently offered a short course to industry representatives, and it is planning another.
De Kee says a research center work best when industries become part of the center, and industry representatives serve on an advisory board. A dialogue is established, clarifying, identifying and executing industry as well as academic research requirements, he says. TIMES has several research collaborations that are in line with NASA goals, says De Kee. One is in the area of thin-film photovoltaics for solar energy conversion.
Such advanced lightweight materials promise to provide the required high-power output and radiation resistance necessary for long-term space missions. Space travel will increasingly rely on specialized chemical processes that create new tailor-made materials with desired mechanical, thermal, scratch-resistant optical and barrier properties, which greatly reduces material degradation and electrical failure, says De Kee. These specialized polymer-based composite materials will be lighter, stronger and better able to withstand the harsh conditions of space.
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