Scientists Make Versatile Polymers From Sugars in Wood

New polymers are made with xylose, a sugar present in wood. Credit: Leszek Kobusinski

Scientists from the Bath Center for Sustainable and Circular Technologies have developed a sustainable polymer using the second most abundant sugar in nature, xylose.

Not only is the material inspired by nature less dependent on crude oil products, but its properties can also be easily controlled to make the material flexible or crystalline.

Researchers, from the Center for Sustainable Universities and Universities, report the polymer, from the polymeric family, has a wide range of applications, including building blocks for polyurethane, use in mattresses and shoe soles; as a bio-derived alternative to polyethylene glycol, a chemical widely used in bio-medicine; or to polyethylene oxide, sometimes used as an electrolyte in the battery.

The team stated that additional functionality can be added to these versatile polymers by combining other chemical groups such as fluorescence probes or dyes into sugar molecules, for biological or chemical protection applications.

Teams can easily produce hundreds of grams of material and let production be measured quickly.

Dr. Antoine Buchard, Royal Society University Research Fellow and Reader at the Center for Sustainability and Circle Technology, led the study.

He said: “We are very happy we are able to produce this sustainable material from abundant natural resources – wood.

“Dependence of plastics and polymers on reduced fossil fuels is a major problem, and bio-derived polymers – derived from recyclable raw materials such as plants – are part of the solution to sustainable plastics.

“These polymers are particularly versatile because of their physical and chemical properties they can be easily modified, to make crystals or more of flexible rubber, as well as to introduce very specific chemical functionality.

“Until now it was very difficult to achieve with bio-derived polymers. This means that with these polymers, we can target multiple applications, from packaging to healthcare or energy materials, in a more sustainable way.”

Like all sugars, xylose occurs in two forms that are mirror images of each other – named D and L.

Polymers use naturally occurring D-enantiomer xylose, however, researchers suggest that combining with the L shape makes the polymer stronger.

The research team has filed patents for its technology and is currently working with industry collaborators to further improve production and explore the application of new materials.

The research was published in the prestigious journal of chemistry Angewandte Chemie International Edition (in open access) and funded by the Royal Society and the Council of Engineering and Physical Sciences, part of British Research and Innovation.

References: “Crystal Control and Stereocomplexation of Synthetic Carbohydrate Polymers from d-and l ylylose” by Thomas M. McGuire, Jessica Bowles, Edward Deane, Elliot HE Farrar, Dr.Mattéo N. Grayson and Drs. Antoine Buchard, November 22, 2020, Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
DOI: 10.1002 / anie.202013562

Funding: Royal Council of Research, Engineering and Physical Sciences

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