with graphite (not graphene) and uses extrusion processes that shear the graphite into and creates graphene-polymer composites. The starting point of graphite makes the process very cheap and in line with costs in the plastics industry. Graphene brings many advantages to plastics from a property and characteristic perspective, but most importantly, it improves the strength of plastics, meaning that they can be used for longer time periods without breaking (and having to enter the waste cycle so quickly).

However, polymers are inherently resistant to breaking down in natural envrionments. The same can be said for graphene-polymer composites because most of the core polymer characteristics remain. However, the longer useful life means that we could see more plastics being used for longer (without breaking), so, on a global scale, there is the potential to reduce the number of plastics hitting the landfill sites/recycling sites by adding a minute amount of graphene to the polymer matrix. But there is also the potential for creating a circular process as you will see next.

Sustainable removal of polymers Aside from creating stronger, more long-lasting polymers, graphene indirectly has a chance to help remove polymers (and other carbon-based waste) from our landfills and general society. In the past few years, a technique has been developed known as Flash Joule Heating, commonly referred to as ‘Flash Graphene’, and it has already been commericalized by a US company, Universal Matters. This technique uses a high- temperature pulse to break down organic waste and turn it into graphene. Any carbon-based waste can be used, including all types of plastics. It doesn’t matter what other constituents are in the plastic beyond the carbon content — whether it’s the chlorine atoms in

Issue 2 • March/April 2021

Polymer Additives

One of the bigger, more widespread areas where graphene intersects with polymers is in advanced composites. A lot of work has been done on these materials over the years in academia and the technology used to create these composites at larger scales is now being licensed

the backbone of the polymer or external contaminants from human use — because the temperature is high enough to sublime out all other atoms (other than carbon). This allows the leftover carbon to form into graphene sheets. The process is highly scalable and is known for producing high-quality graphene.

This is not only applicable to the plastics industry: it could help to reduce the recycling and waste burden in the future by ‘flashing’ it all. So, graphene could have more of an indirect impact here compared to that of composites, which is more direct. However, this does create the potential for a completely circular process. For example, you could take the

graphene produced by this process (or another process) and integrate it into polymer composites. Once the polymer composites are spent, they could then be flashed, creating fresh graphene again — a process that could be done over and over again. The graphene could be integrated into other areas and plastics from other applications can also be flashed, but in a world where plastics are mounting up, there are a lot of opportunities for this method to be used to recycle plastics in a different way.

In summary

Overall, many people think that graphene is too expensive to be used in the polymers industry, but this is no longer the case. Efforts have been made to bring down the cost of graphene and effective integration methods mean that only very small amounts are required

to realize the benefits (and in turn the value proposition of using graphene). Graphene could also play an indirect role in creating a circular industry by flashing any waste plastics and re-integrating the graphene into new polymer composites. The ineffective disposal of plastics and their appearance in our oceans and ecosystems is a global issue and graphene does present an opportunity (directly and indirectly) for not only creating longer-lasting plastics, but also in the removal of waste plastics from our society. While commercial efforts are now being realized, the roll-out of these solutions out on a global scale will still take some time, but the future of polymers could involve graphene in a number of ways.


Liam Critchley Freelance Chemistry and Nanotechnology Writer E: liam_critchley@hotmail. com

in: https://www.linkedin. com/in/liam-critchley- nanowriter/ t: nanowriter


(Photo © iStock / ktsimage)

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