A researcher with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has won a $500,000 grant to develop plant-based plastics and rubbers.
Megan Robertson, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, received the grant from the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award program. CAREER Awards are designed to help faculty in the early stages of their research launch long-term, successful labs. They are widely considered one of the most prestigious grants given to young investigators.
With the funds, Robertson will use vegetable oils like soybean oil, palm kernel oil and linseed oil to develop new polymers. Polymers are long, chain-like molecules made up of repeating units. They are the key component of rubbers and plastics encountered in everyday life.
Today, most polymers are made from petroleum. This can present some issues, said Robertson, such as fluctuations in pricing and undesired environmental impacts related to processing the petroleum oils. Another issue, and one that is possibly most serious in the long term, is the limited nature of fossil fuels.
“People have been innovating with polymers that are primarily derived from petroleum over the last 100 years. We’ve learned a lot during that time, but in the end, petroleum is a finite resource. Are we going to run out of petroleum today? No, but we need to start thinking about this now, because it could take a long time to develop the same diversity in materials from plant-derived polymers that we currently have in petroleum-derived polymers,” said Robertson.