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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2021

“Development of a Polymer Recycling Experiment for the Undergraduate Laboratory”

Dorothy Mitchell

Senior, Chemistry

Abstract

Polymers play an essential role in the modern world and make up many of the plastics we use in our everyday lives; however, the accumulation of these plastics has led to many waste-management issues and environmental damage. Polymer education is very underrepresented in current learning curricula. Most of the traditional undergraduate chemistry curriculum focuses on the synthesis and characterization of small discrete molecules and has limited coverage of other important materials such as macromolecules. Our goal is to develop an experiment that will turn the industrial process of recycling polystyrene into a laboratory experiment for undergraduate organic chemistry students. This experiment would use the dissolution/ reprecipitation technique, which is a solvent-based process that allows for the recovery of plastic waste. The samples will be dissolved in a strong solvent, such as cymene or xylene; and will need to undergo a filtration process to remove any insoluble impurities such as dirt and insoluble additives. A weak solvent will then be added to precipitate the pure polystyrene out of the solution. The polystyrene samples and pure polystyrene product will be characterized using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) to determine their chemical structures.

Project Background

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is big on sustainability, so I thought my experiment would encourage students to become more aware of recycling techniques and help them develop better recycling habits. Another reason for pursing this research is because polymer chemistry is an underrepresented area in current learning curricula, so to help students in organic chemistry become more aware of these polymers I wanted to develop an an experiment for them to perform.

 

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