Polymer Nanocomposites: the Upcoming Disruption for Energy Saving

Mario HonrubiaInspirationsengineers

In August 2018, ennomotive launched a challenge to help Codelco Tech, the subsidiary of the first mining company in Chile and first world copper producer. A new Copper Graphene (G/Cu) nanocomposite has been developed recently: the addition of 3% graphene to pure copper has proven to be a material that significantly improves the yield strength, tensile strength, and elastic modulus if compared to pure copper. The goal of this challenge was to find ideas on potential and very specific applications in which the use of this new nanocomposite translates into a technical/economic improvement compared to the materials used to date. For 6 weeks, 65 engineers from 14 countries accepted the challenge and submitted different solutions. After a thorough evaluation, Codelco Tech picked the solution that best met the evaluation criteria and awarded the winners, Julio Andrés Casal Ramos, from Venezuela, Fernanda Elena Monasterio, from Argentina y Vivek Nair, from Singapore. We have contacted Fernanda to learn about her experience and the future of polymer nanocomposites. Here you can read the full interview.

Fernanda Monasterio: Innovation is not so difficult, but taking a new material to market is

polymer nanocomposites Fernanda Monasterio

Can you introduce yourself briefly?

My name is Fernanda Monasterio and I'm a Chemical Engineer. My greatest work experience is in the Materials R&D field, my Ph.D. thesis revolved around the generation of new additives from silicones and clays to obtain polymer nanocomposites with high-density polyethylene. Nonetheless, I have always wanted to explore other fields, so I worked as a Process Engineer in a project about the installation of an ammonium nitrate manufacturing plant. Besides, a few months ago I completed my postdoc related to the development of photocatalyst from TiO2.

What projects have been crucial for your career?

I can mention two main projects. One was in cooperation with researchers from the Professora Eloisa Mano Macromolecules Institute (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). They were very skilled in numerous techniques and had a high academic level so it was very stimulating and they made it easy for me to learn because of their generosity. They had also a very well-articulated system with the private sector, and so the way they worked was different from what I was used to doing.  The other project was the one I mentioned above. In this case, since it was about a plant installation, the problems to be solved were different than the usually seen in an already-functioning plant. It was thrilling, I stress the experience and professionalism of those leading the Set-Up group, where I worked.  These two were very different working experiences, but both gave me the ability to make better decisions if a challenge comes around. 

What are the most significant advances made in the sector of polymer nanocomposites in the past few years?

There are different advances in this research field because the dispersion of nanofillers inside a polymer means new challenges when obtaining the best combination nanofiller-polymer matrix. During the most recent decades, processing techniques, the use of additives and the ways of the synthesis have been thoroughly explored. For instance, atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP) was already used to synthesize polymers but it has been used to manipulate, at a nanometric level, the interaction between the materials in order to obtain the expected response. If we talk about a material that represents an impact in the market, the most significant advances can be found in the automotive industry. One application could be the tires with nanofillers, which deliver low rolling resistance and reduce the consumption of oil. 

Is it difficult to innovate in this sector? Why?

If you have the infrastructure, the human and material resources to go through a research in Nanotechnology, I think that it is not difficult to innovate in this sector, given the wide range of possibilities and different combinations that can be explored by altering both the properties of the polymeric matrix and the properties of the added nanometric materials. Only if we consider innovation to be a 'new material with the desired properties'. A lot of interesting bibliography can be found which describes different kinds of materials. However, this does not mean that the material can be immediately brought to market, I think that we will be able to evaluate the real impact of polymer nanocomposites in our lives in the future. I believe that an important innovation for these materials (taking all the polymers into account), would be to find a way to make its final disposal easier. Progress has been made, certainly, and biodegradable options are being studied while raising awareness to reduce the use of non-disposable materials. However, if we do not mitigate their negative environmental impact, new materials are not likely to have a good reception among customers. There are several countries in which the use of plastic bags has been restricted, for instance.

Which are the most immediate innovations in the coming years in this field?

I think there is going to be great progress, I can mention one that looked very interesting: polylactic acid-based and nanocrystal cellulose-based nanocomposite for biomedical applications.  However, the ones that will have an immediate application, in my opinion, will be those polymer nanocomposites directly or indirectly focused on energy saving. There are some materials already applied in the automotive industry that try to make vehicles lighter, thus reducing oil consumption. I think that the construction industry will choose these materials because they will be lighter, more resistant to mechanical efforts and better thermal properties. 

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