Polymers are needed to achieve the tremendous challenge of Sustainable Development. However, at the same time, they are a problem because of their non-renewable fossil origin and very slow degradability. A way to reduce the environmental impact of the polymers, which is embedded in all our activities and will not be detailed here, is to improve their properties to expand their useful life and to reduce the amount needed for a given application. This section covers the research aimed at i) achieving a sustainable polymer production, ii) polymer recycling, iii) developing membranes for water and gases, and iv) sustainable coatings
Sustainable polymer production
Research activities are aimed at developing organocatalysts, solvent-free waterborne polymer dispersions and biosourced polymers.
The use of catalysts is widely spread in order to save energy and improve the performance of the processes they are applied for. However, here, new and green alternatives to metal catalysts are sought with the use of biocatalysts or organocatalyst in the context of the sustainable chemistry. The design and fabrication of enzyme-polymer hybrids, either as bioconjugates or enzyme nanogels, has given rise to efficient and stable catalysts in several applications such as chemical transformations, biosensing or production of energy.
Organocatalysis offer the possibility of replacing polluting metallic catalysts in many polymerizations. Research is focused on the development of organocatalysts for step-growth polymerizations, as well as for depolymerization.
Waterborne polymer dispersions
Waterborne dispersed polymers are continuously gaining share of the market because of their unique set of properties and the fact that they are solvent free. Research is aimed at overcoming some of the fundamental challenges in the production of waterborne dispersed polymers: achieving good control of the polymer microstructure and particle morphology (in particular for hybrid systems); mimicking Nature to achieve functional coatings such as self-healing and superhydrophobic coatings; and integrating materials from natural resources.
Research includes the synthesis of biobased monomers, waterborne coatings, removable adhesives, and packaging materials with good mechanical and barrier properties and full chemical recyclability. The crystallization of biobased polymers is also investigated.
Polymer recycling and reutilization strategy need to be expanded to alleviate the current pollution problematics. Reesearch is focused on plastic recycling through depolymerization. By retaining the economic value of the discarded materials, chemical recycling offers the possibility of transforming our current linear mode of plastics consumption to a circular economy model. As part of the solution, we develop optimized recycling strategies for different plastic wastes resulting in raw materials with added value through upcycling technologies.
Conventional physical recycling and new reusable thermostable materials such as vitrimers are also being investigated.
Membranes for water and air
Membrane separations play a crucial role in water treatment, reduction in emissions, biomedical applications, as well as energy saving through more efficient membrane-based unit operations. Polymer membrane separations and/or purifications have a substantial impact on global sustainability. Research is focused on membranes for gas and vapor separations; stimuli-responsive/biomimicking membranes; and membranes in water treatment as well as membrane water treatment monitoring.
Polymer coatings and paints are key barrier materials to improve the functionality and durability of a variety of materials ranging from wood to metals. Here we are mimicking Nature to achieve functional coatings with functionalities such as self-healing or superhydrophobic/oleophobic coatings. Anti-corrosion polymer coatings are also being investigated and the incorporation of new corrosion inhibitors into polymer latexes or coatings obtained by photopolymerization.