Messel Travel Bursary recipient, Rachel Atkinson, reports from Australia

25 October 2018

Rachel Atkinson was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary to attend the Macro 2018 (47th IUPAC World Polymer Conference), Cairns Convention Centre, in Australia. Here she tells us how she learnt more about her area of research as well as current research in polymer chemistry, how she developed her skills and confidence in presenting and the networking opportunities that the conference provided.

‘I attended the IUPAC World Polymer Congress (known as Macro 2018), which took place in Cairns, Australia, from the 1st-5th July 2018. This is a world-renowned, international polymer conference, attracting leading speakers and attendees from a diverse range of fields within polymer science. The conference consisted of fourteen themes in total over the 5 days, covering a huge range of topics from both academics and industrial researchers, including over 150 invited speakers and many more programme speakers.

‘I am undertaking my PhD in the School of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham and am currently in my 2nd year. My research focuses on using renewably-sourced monomers to synthesise polymers that can replace current, petroleum-derived polymers. Currently 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, accounting for around 4% of the world’s total fossil fuel usage, with around another 4% used to power plastic manufacturing processes. This is an unsustainable level of consumption that is forecast to more than triple by 2050. Minimising the use of fossil fuels is vital to the sustainability and future of the plastics industry. In order to develop renewable polymers with properties to rival those of current petroleum-based polymers, renewable monomer sources must be investigated. Produced primarily by plants, terpenes are an ideal candidate for a sustainable monomer feedstock. They are a naturally abundant class of hydrocarbons with structures based on multiple isoprene units. By far the most readily available and inexpensive of the terpenes is α-pinene, followed by β-pinene, which are the main components in turpentine. Turpentine is found in coniferous trees and produced on a scale of 330 kilotonnes per year. Limonene is another example of a naturally abundant terpene, found in the peel of citrus fruits and produced on a scale of 60,000 kilotonnes per year. These terpenes are also particularly promising as they are available from existing industrial waste streams; α- and β-pinene from the paper industry and limonene from the citrus juice industry.

‘However, the direct polymerisation of terpenes has had limited success, often requiring harsh conditions, or producing only low molecular weight polymers. In our group, we modify the previously mentioned terpenes by adding a (meth)acrylate group to produce novel, terpene-based (meth)acrylate monomers. The resulting monomers are readily polymerised using radical polymerisation techniques. My work focuses on using these monomers to synthesise homopolymers and block copolymers via controlled polymerisation techniques. I am interested in the phase separation behaviour of the resulting block copolymer materials, particularly combining ‘hard’ blocks, with a high glass transition temperature, and ‘soft’ blocks with a low glass transition temperature, to produce hard-soft block copolymers. If phase separation can be achieved, these materials can exhibit a range of useful properties, thanks to the resulting phase-separated hard and soft domains. Initial phase separation studies for these materials have been successful, showing that these materials do form microphase separated domains in bulk. Therefore, these polymers may work well as thermoplastic elastomers, which are produced by synthesising ABA triblock copolymers, where A is a hard block, B is a soft block, and the blocks undergo phase separation to give hard domains in a soft matrix.

‘Macro 2018 was the first international conference I have attended, having previously presented posters at UK conferences, so being accepted to give an oral presentation was an incredible opportunity. My talk was titled ‘Synthesis of Renewable, Hard-Soft Block Copolymers via the RAFT Polymerisation of Terpene (Meth)acrylates’ and I was part of the ‘Renewable Resources and Biopolymers’ theme. Condensing my work down into a short presentation was a challenge but through this experience, I learnt how to think critically about my research and explain my results succinctly as well as promote myself as a researcher. Presenting at a conference of this scale also greatly improved my confidence and I was very pleased with the response I received. I was asked some interesting and thought-provoking questions about my research, which led to further discussions with people who had excellent suggestions for ways to improve my future work.

‘Overall, I feel that I have learnt a huge amount about my area of research as well as the current research in polymer chemistry worldwide. The other presentations within the ‘Renewable Resources and Biopolymers’ theme were particularly interesting to me they were often relevant to my current work. However, I was able to attend many talks from a number of different themes and appreciated the opportunity to see the cutting-edge research in polymer science, from all around the world. I also found the poster session very interesting and spoke to several people about their work. There was a lot of time set aside for meeting people and networking, particularly at the welcome reception and gala dinner. I met and saw talks from a number of people whose work was inspiring, and who I might consider working for in the future. There was also a student networking event which was a good opportunity to make contacts and hear about the work that other students are doing.

‘I would like to thank SCI for awarding me a Messel Travel Bursary and giving me this incredible opportunity to promote my research internationally as well as meet a range of prominent researchers in the field of polymer chemistry.’

Rachel Atkinson
PhD student
University of Nottingham

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