Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Jan. 23, 1998

Plastics projects aplenty

by Skip Derra

Christmas came early for Joshua Otaigbe. On Dec. 15, Otaigbe, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, received word from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that he had won a career award from its division of materials research.

The award will provide up to $100,000 per year for four years for his research into glassy phosphate polymers, a type of glass-plastic that could improve the performance of products ranging from batteries to lasers.

The award does several things for Otaigbe (pronounced Oh-TIE- bee). It puts a project he has "bootlegged" for several years on firm funding ground. It provides some recognition -- Otaigbe is the first person in his department to earn this national award. And it caps a successful year for the young professor.

Also this year, Otaigbe has received a $360,000 three-year NSF grant for a project to explore making permanent magnets from polymers and rare earth alloys (see adjoining story). He was recognized by the Society of Plastics Engineers for a paper on his work on atomizing polymer materials. Another of his projects has caught the eye of an automobile manufacturer interested in crash-worthy thermoplastic composite parts.

"This has been an excellent year, but it's the result of a lot of hard work," he said.

Otaigbe has struggled at times to keep his projects going. For any young professor, ideas are far more plentiful than the funding to explore them. But he has kept promising projects going at minimum funding levels while trying to attract more funding.

Otaigbe has managed to keep the small but viable research project on glassy phospate polymers going at Iowa State for four years. In it, he explores phosphate glass and polymer materials, looking at both the basic glass properties and how to optimize the combined properties of the mixtures. The work is being carried out with Corning Inc., Corning, N.Y.

Making new materials isn't the only thing Otaigbe does from scratch. Since coming to Iowa State in 1994, he has built a polymers research program where virtually none existed, and he has helped develop and integrate polymer science into the MSE program.

Otaigbe has taught and done research on three continents. Born and raised in Benin, Nigeria, Otaigbe earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Benin, and went to England for advanced studies. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in polymer science and engineering, he returned to the University of Benin to revitalize its industrial chemistry program.

But his desire to do top quality research and the lure of better equipped labs in the West drew Otaigbe to North America and a position at the University of Alberta in Canada.

"I have all of these ideas," he said. "If I cannot do them where I am at, then I consider other places to do my research. It just wasn't there in Nigeria. We didn't have an NSF for grants."

In 1992, Otaigbe's academic life went industrial as he accepted a position with Corning Inc.

"I went into industry to learn about 'real engineering' and hoping that the experience would make me a better teacher," he said. "I believe it did. It broadened my scope and helped me make these discoveries that have put me where I am at now."

Otaigbe said the industrial experience also gave him a greater sense of prioritization and exposed him to multidisciplinary research, in which people from many different disciplines tackle the same problem together. But the desire to teach never left him and when Iowa State called, he listened to the offer.

"This (Iowa State) was a good opportunity to set up research and have the freedom to create something from scratch, although I had to take a pay cut to come here," he said. "I did it because of my love of academics."

A new spin on polymers

Heat 'em, magnetize 'em, dissolve 'em

The advantage of plastics or polymers is that they are lightweight but have a strength and stiffness comparable, on a weight to weight basis, to steel and metals in many applications. Joshua Otaigbe has spent 16 years researching these compounds. Here are a few of his projects.

Homegrown plastics

Otaigbe's project focuses on soy protein plastics, which were developed to biodegrade after serving their function. The problem with soy protein plastics, he said, is that they dissolve too quickly in water, limiting their potential uses. His new formulation makes the material more moisture resistant, providing greater control over the biodegradation process. The work could lead to several new uses for soy protein plastics, such as food packaging, medical sutures, even sporting goods.

Atomized plastics

Otaigbe and a former graduate student have demonstrated that better processing control for many polymers is possible by using gas atomization methods. This work benefited from the patented research by Ames Lab's Iver Anderson, who did his work with metals. Otaigbe atomizes his polymer materials in a similar way. In a 12-foot-high transparent chamber, he blasts a stream of molten polymer with high-pressure nitrogen gas. The process produces uniformly fine spherical powders of the plastic, which can be shaped into complex parts, or used in inks, pigments, powder spray coatings and paints.

Driven plastics

Otaigbe's "cyclomer" technology addresses a problem scientists have in making tough thermoplastic composite materials. These structural materials combine a polymer with a reinforcing fiber for strength. Current methods of melting the polymer prior to molding lead to problems, due to the gooey, gunky nature of the melted plastic. Otaigbe doesn't melt the polymer until it has been vacuum-injected into a mold with the reinforcing fibers. Like heating a prepared food dish in a microwave, he subjects the compound to heat for a very short period of time. The result is a tough, durable plastic part. Otaigbe thinks the process might spur a resurgent interest in polymer auto body parts not seen since the Pontiac Fiero of the 1980s.

Magnetized plastics

Permanent bonded magnets are a $400-million market and are used in consumer products from cars to computers. But they are made from rare earth metal alloys, which are heavy and hard to process into shapes. Otaigbe recently received NSF funding to explore melting polymers with the rare earth magnetic alloys to make magnetized plastics. He thinks this project could lead to magnets that are 30 to 40 percent lighter and easier to form into shapes than the pure metal alloy magnets. Otaigbe also expects this research to address the problem of thermal corrosion inherent in the pure magnetic alloy powders.

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