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New approach could lead to designed plastics with specific properties

plastic bags
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Imagine a plastic bag that can carry home your groceries, then quickly degrade, without harming the environment. Or a super-strong, lightweight plastic for airplanes, rockets, and satellites that can replace traditional structural metals in aerospace technologies.


Machine learning and artificial intelligence have accelerated the ability to design materials with specific properties like these. But while scientists have had success designing new metallic alloys, polymers—like the plastic used for bags—have been much more difficult to design.

Researchers at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago have found a way forward in designing polymers by combining modeling and machine learning.

By computationally constructing nearly 2,000 hypothetical polymers, they were able to create a large-enough database to train a neural network—a type of machine learning—to understand which polymer properties arise from different molecular sequences.

“We show that the problem is tractable,” said Juan de

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If recycling plastics isn’t making sense, remake the plastics

Image of a forklift surrounded by plastic bottles.
Enlarge / Workers sort plastic waste as a forklift transports plastic waste at Yongin Recycling Center in Yongin, South Korea.

A few years back, it looked like plastic recycling was set to become a key part of a sustainable future. Then, the price of fossil fuels plunged, making it cheaper to manufacture new plastics. Then China essentially stopped importing recycled plastics for use in manufacturing. With that, the bottom dropped out of plastic recycling, and the best thing you could say for most plastics is that they sequestered the carbon they were made of.

The absence of a market for recycled plastics, however, has also inspired researchers to look at other ways of using them. Two papers this week have looked into processes that enable “upcycling,” or converting the plastics into materials that can be more valuable than the freshly made plastics themselves.

Make me some nanotubes

The first paper,

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