AMHERST, Mass. - New University of Massachusetts professor Jacques Penelle likens his work in polymer chemistry to architecture: "I want to create new molecular architectures, and then evaluate them."Polymers - commonly called plastics - are long chains of atoms, sometimes thousands of atoms. "We’re trying to find procedures to arrange atoms in specific ways. There are many possibilities," Penelle says. "My job is to develop new ways to place atoms in the molecular structure."
By devising new polymer structures, scientists can create plastics with specific qualities, such as precise levels of adhesion, flame retardency, or electrical conductivity - specially tailored materials in great demand in industry. For instance, creating an affordable biodegradable plastic, such as the plastic used to make sandwich bags, is an environmental priority. The bags are currently made of non-degradable polyethylene, a long string of carbon atoms with two hydrogens on each carbon. If scientists add a variation, or intentional defect, every 80 atoms, for example, enzymes will eventually break down the plastic.
Penelle points out that many plastics are petroleum-based. "It’s not possible to know how long petroleum will be available," he says. "What we need to do is to synthesize a polyethylene-like polymer with the same properties, but which will be biodegradable." He adds that while equivalent technology exists, it is not yet cost-effective: "No one will agree to pay, let’s say, $10 for a plastic bag in the supermarket," he says.
One major asset of the University’s polymer science and engineering department, Penelle says, is its multidisciplinary nature. The field enables experts from diverse areas, such as mechanical engineering and chemistry, to work collaboratively. This sense of teamwork is a plus for the department’s graduate students, who will have to work effectively on scientific teams if they take jobs in industry.
"This is one of the basic reasons that this is the best research department in polymer science, certainly in the United States, and probably in the world," said Penelle. "It is a big honor for me to be here and participate."
Penelle earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Universite Catholique de Louvain in his native Belgium, where he was also a professor. He arrived at UMass this past spring.