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Schaer Science: PSU Polymer Chemistry Initiative

In this week's Schaer Science, we visit the Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State University to learn about a fairly new science called polymer chemistry.
PITTSBURG, KS.--- Polymer science, first developed in the 1930's, it is new to the science world, yet incredibly important to life on earth.

"You take polymers away from the world around us and the world disappears. Our culture doesn't exist anymore," said Dr. Petar Dvornic, Polymer Chemistry Initiative Coordinator.

Pittsburg State's Dr. Petar Dvornic is leading a polymer chemistry initiative at the university. He explains polymers come in two forms, natural and synthetic.

"Generally large molecules which are composed of small building blocks, which repeat along the molecular structure many times," said Dr. Dvornic.
 
Dr. Dvornic says a natural example is the earth's crust, which is 75% to 85% made up of polymer materials.

"Natural are some of those that are responsible for the existence of our planet and life on it," he said. 

Synthetic, or man-made, polymers are then responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in science and technology.

"From aerospace applications, from building rockets, airplanes and so forth, to computers. The miniaturization of the computers is directly caused by the advances in polymer science. Biomedical applications, drug targeting to the ailed parts of the body, rather than circulating the drugs through the entire body," he said.

Polymer science continues its development in Southeast Kansas thanks to the area's agriculture.

"The work basically originates from soybean oil, corn oil, and other vegetable oils that they themselves have compounds that are called triglycerides. And which are used in chemical transformations," he said. 

The polymer chemistry initiative at PSU will make Southeast Kansas one of the only areas in the nation where this kind of science can be studied at an undergraduate level.

"In contrast to everything else in chemistry, where chemistry makes usually liquids, powders, or gases as the product, polymers make materials of which you can make a table, or which you can make a car bumper, of which you can make the airplane fuselage," said Dr. Dvornic.
 
Dr. Dvornic expects the initiative to follow three main directions at PSU. The first will be polymers that deal with electronics.

"Where we will deal with the materials that can further reduce, miniaturize computers and increase their speeds and capacities. Hoping to get, in the end, to making computers obsolete," he said. 

Secondly, he expects those involved with the program to study polymers for electrical purposes at a very small level.
 
"Molecular wires and capacitors and other components that can go to nanoelectography," he said. 

Perhaps one of the biggest applications of polymeric materials will be in the biomedical field.

"Molecules which will be able to find, in the body, that particular location where healing is necessary," he said. 

He explains a drug could travel in what is described as a molecular capsule, dock to sick molecules within the body, and deliver the medicine necessary without adversely affecting healthy tissue around it.

"Just think about applications in cancer research, in cancer, in oncology, where you can use the chemotherapy drugs without poisoning the rest of the body while you are trying to heal the cancerous tissue," said Dr. Dvornic.
 
So, if we soon see a world where cancer treatments aren't so harsh on patients, or computers no longer exist, think of polymers. Just remember you saw it all on Schaer Science. The bachelor's degree in polymer chemistry will begin this coming fall. The school is also waiting to hear from the Kansas Board of Regents to approve the master's program, which they hope to then begin enrollment in the spring of 2015.

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