July 13, 2009

Plastic Not-So Fantastic

A report has recently been released regarding the impact of plastics on the environment and human health. It aims to present the first comprehensive review of the impact of plastics on the environment and human health, and offers possible solutions. If it is the first of its kind, it baffles me that it has taken so long for a study of this scale to be conducted given our widespread use of plastic materials. Whether or not you believe what the report has to say regarding the toxicity of plastics (check out the comments, as usual there is a lot more substance there!), the fact of the matter is we are poor at disposing and recycling plastic materials and the effect of this on our environment is clear in some areas. What we need are more biodegradable packaging products.

Nonetheless, it is a perfect introduction to the basis of my PhD research, as I know some of you have wondered exactly what it is I did all those years at university (apart from corridor cricket, darts, and long lunches at KK Malaysia!).

The essence of our research group is to add value to natural products, particularly those that NZ is a world class producer of, like paper and wool. There is a big drive at the moment from the packaging industry to develop products that offer the technical characteristics of plastics, but with the biocompatibility of natural materials like paper.

My research looked at creating high tech packaging products by using the electronic, magnetic, and optical properties of nanoparticles (really tiny particles, 10,000x thinner than a human hair). These particles by themselves are hard to utilise due to their small size, but if we can capture them on a surface we can begin to create useful materials. I looked at a number of low cost coating methods and simple inkjet printing (like you can do at home) to impart these properties on sheets of paper.

Because the paper materials we made are electrically, magnetically, and optically active, we hope to use the findings of this research to create anticounterfeit packaging technologies (optical materials), for shielding equipment that is sensitive to electromagnetic radiation such as cellular and wireless network frequencies (electronic and magnetic paper), and in antistatic packaging for sensitive components (electronic paper). The image below is of the VUW logo inkjet printed with nanoparticles. Under normal light conditions this is invisible - just a white piece of paper, yet under UV light it glows orange. This forms the basis of the anticounterfeit packaging technology I was talking about above.

Hopefully someone can find a use for it!

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