FROM RUBBER DUCKIES TO SOLAR CELLS

Take a Journey in Science”, a spring lecture series hosted by the Rodgers Library for Science and Engineering, finished up its month long run with “The Evolution of Polymers: From Rubber Duckies to Polymer Based Solar Cells”, hosted by Paul Rupar, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama. The final lightning talk was one of four presented throughout February and March, covering topics from biological engineering to LED light applications to nanotechnology, and finally polymer science.
The “Take a Journey in Science” program started in the Spring of 2014, and after being a success with the students, it was brought back for another go around. The ten to fifteen minute long lightning talks serve as a way for University of Alabama professors to give students a glimpse into the research they conduct outside of the classroom. For Assistant Professor Paul Rupar, his main focus is polymer based chemistry.
Rupar, who has been at the university for over two years, says that his motivation to do work in polymer science is driven by the fact that we are basically surrounded by polymers on a daily basis. You think polymer science doesn’t affect your day-to day-life? Guess again. You interact with them everyday.
“It’s kind of shocking how much polymers are everywhere,” Rupar said.
The chair you’re sitting on? Well, if it’s plastic, then it’s made of polymers. The nylon carpet under your feet? Polymers. If your favorite shirt happens to say polyester on the name tag, then guess what? That’s right, polymers. There are countless things we interact with that we have polymers to thank for. Without polymers, you couldn’t use your handy non-stick frying pan in the morning to cook your eggs, because we wouldn’t have teflon. Without polymers, your shampoo wouldn’t make your hair shiny and silky, because it would lack dimethicone.
“Without synthetic polymers, your modern life would not exist,” Rupar said. “I think it’s one of the areas of chemistry that has impacted modern life the most.”
Research being done today is working towards developing polymers that will further benefit our lives in other ways besides saving our breakfast from permanently becoming one with the frying pan. One example of this is the concept of self-healing polymers. Say for instance you drop your cell phone, and to your dismay there’s now a big scratch on the screen. If the screen were to have self-healing polymer properties, that scratch would be gone in a few days time. This technology can also be extremely useful when a certain polymer is either hard to replace or it’s hard to detect when it is broken. While self-healing polymers are becoming available in our lives, Rupar says he doubts it will on the Terminator’s level, so don’t expect it to blow to smithereens and then immediately reform.
As for Rupar and research with polymers, his focus is on improving the efficiency of synthetic polymers that would be used to build solar cells. Current solar cells operate at about a 20% efficiency, but they are expensive, heavy, and really easy to break. If solar cells were to be polymer based, they would be lighter, more flexible, and less expensive. Finding a way to more easily harness solar power would be a huge step in the way we generate energy.
“The future will hopefully have very, very inexpensive polymer solar cells.” Rupar said.
Overall, the lecture series was another huge success for the University of Alabama. Besides giving professors a chance to showcase their work, the brief lightning talks also give students the opportunity to get a more focused glimpse in to a subject they might have interest in. It also gets their foot in the door for future research opportunities. Rupar says that a couple of students contacted him after the event with questions about getting involved in polymer research. Based on the popularity of the “Take a Journey in Science” lecture series the past two years, hopefully the university will make it an annual event, and continue to give the public a chance to get a glimpse at topics in science that shape our world.

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