UNT Research, Volume 17, 2008 Page: 26
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The potential impact of D'Souza's work extends far beyond
environmental and agricultural benefits. The materials also may
have biomedical applications, such as in tissue engineering or in
the creation of biopolymer arterial stents that use ibuprofen as a
functionalizing agent, which she worked on with engineering
students Sunny Ogbomo and Koffi Leonard Dagnon.
"I am getting rewarding experience by being involved in Dr.
D'Souza's lab. I call it 'green research work' due to its increased
environmental concerns," says Dagnon, a Ph.D. student in materials
science and engineering who has worked in the lab as a research
assistant since fall 2006.
"If I were not at UNT, I would not be exposed to the univer-
sity's new and unique instrumentation, such as the Leistritz twin
screw extruder for biopolymer blending, the high-resolution scan-
ning electron microscope or the transmission microscope."
DEVELOPING N W IAT.RIALS
European companies lead bioplastics research today, and the
focus is bridging long polymer chains and various starches with
vegetable oils and other natural molecules. (A polymer is a natural
or synthetic compound of large molecules made of chemically
bonded smaller molecules.) So far, the results are suitable mostly
for shopping bags and other flexible films.
The limitation of films, of course, is that they are thin and
stretclhv. \V'Ilec that's fine for a bag, it ccrtanlly oesn't work where
rigidity is required, in products such as boxes, for example.
That's where D'Souza - who is interested in harnessing a
material's underlying physics and chemistry - comes in.
"I like having an effect on life. It's a challenge," she says. "And
I love the fact that there's still a struggle on shelf-life issues that I
can help solve."
D'Souza is building on the European work, using Italian poly-
mer pellets as a base. She mixes the pellets with other biodegradable
polymers and then measures the biomechanical properties that result.
"Our approach," she says, "is to bring in different materials to
retain the biodegradability but enhance the stiffness."
D'Souza works at the almost inconceivable scale of nanome-
ters - one-billionth of a meter. A human hair, by contrast, is
immense at 100,000 nanometers wide.
Starting with the polymer pellets, D'Souza adds various
nanometer-sized particles, specifically carbohydrate chains called
polysaccharides, or other biopolymers that don't dissolve in water,
plus a tiny amount of clay. Clay, she points out, has 10 times
the stiffness of conventional plastic at the microscopic level at
which she works. When a nanostructured wall is formed within the
polymer, water and gas permeability is lowered, increasing shelf life.
One of her early successes has been developing a way to reduce
the amount of clay added from about 30 percent of the new bio-
26 2008 UNT RESEARCH
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University of North Texas. UNT Research, Volume 17, 2008, periodical, 2008; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc115031/m1/26/: accessed July 25, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting University Relations, Communications & Marketing department for UNT.