Expanding the potential of radical polymerization

A technique known as radical polymerization has proven to be an important method for the industrial production of plastics, rubbers, and adhesives. Now, a team of researchers has developed a new method that significantly expands the scope of radical polymerization’s applications.

The results of the work, led by Prof. Mingjiang Zhong, are published in Nature Synthesis.

“We can now efficiently diversify or improve the properties of many commodity polymers by precisely engineering their main chain microstructures using our invention,” said Zhong, assistant professor of chemical & environmental engineering and chemistry. 

Controlling the stereochemistry - that is, the spatial arrangements of atoms - of radical polymerization is a long-standing challenge in polymer science. The research team designed a novel catalytic system that can “tame” the radicals’ stereochemical behaviors in the polymerization process so that the properties of polymers can be synthesized from exactly the same type of monomer.

Using this method, the researchers were able to synthesize functional polymers with diverse and highly tunable properties from a single type of chemical feedstock. 

The researchers plan to further study the mechanism and optimize the catalyst so that the method can be used to synthesize novel functional polymers used in energy devices and tissue engineering.

Other authors of the paper are Xiaowei Zhang, Fei Lin, and Mengxue Cao.