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Polymers are being used in increasing ways in modern industry. From clothing to household implements and in medical applications such as synthetic heart valves and prosthetics, their use is widespread. Being able to characterize them is therefore of the utmost importance to industrial researchers.
What is a Polymer?
Polymers can either be natural or synthetic. Long chains of monomers typically bound together by covalent bonds, they are of particular importance to modern industry and are used in several synthetic materials. Production of polymers (otherwise known as polymerization) involves complex chemical methods which sometimes produce by-products and apply specific combinations of heat, pressure, and catalysis to produce polymers with various mechanical and chemical properties. This is usually done in a linear, repetitive fashion.
Depending on their mechanical properties, polymers can be typically characterized as elastomers, plastics, or rigid polymers. Their properties can be measured through tensile testing, which reveals physical characteristics that are influenced by their chemical makeup.
The characterization of the chemical properties and physical structure of polymers is therefore essential to researchers working in their development as the end product needs to be deeply understood for quality assessment purposes.
Methods for Characterizing Industrial Polymers
There are several methods available to the analyst to characterize industrial polymers. While this is not an exhaustive list, these include:
- Size exclusion chromatography (SEC) – A chromatographic technique where molecules in solution are separated by size or molecular weight. Also known as molecular sieve chromatography.
- Gel permeation chromatography (GPC) – A type of size exclusion chromatography.
- Mass spectrometry – A spectrometry technique that measures mass-to-charge ratio of ions.
- X-ray crystallographic methods including single-crystal diffraction.
- Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy – a spectroscopic technique used to obtain a solid, liquid, or gas’s infrared absorption or emission spectrum.
The Use of Robotics in this Field
The characterization and analysis of polymers can be a time-intensive, costly, and sometimes dangerous process. By leaving the process to exclusively Human-based control and analytical methods, these factors can impact on the overall efficiency of a research project. Therefore, scientists are constantly looking for ways of improving the process. Recent advances in the field of laboratory robotics have aided in the industrial characterization of polymers and have been pushing the field onward.
The main benefit of robotics for this field, as in many others, is the ability to automate processes and take the Human element out of certain aspects of the process. This means that the analyst can concentrate on more useful applications for their skillset, and take on an observational role, freeing themselves from time-intensive and ultimately redundant tasks. This, therefore, creates a more streamlined and dynamic collaborative laboratory environment that can benefit a project’s overall results.
In the case of GPR studies, one of the main concerns which is addressed by the use of increased automation and robotics, in particular, is that of the preparation of samples. Not only time-consuming and redundant, but this stage of the process also involves potential contact with hot surfaces and solvent vapors, which can be incredibly dangerous for analysts working in these studies. By developing robotic applications that take care of this stage of the process, not only can efficiency be improved vastly, but health and safety concerns can be mitigated.
Robotics and Machine Learning: The Future of Industrial Polymer Characterization?
Robotic-based applications are not only conferring improvements in simple efficiency, however. The recently developed, associated field of machine learning can also bring benefits for the characterization of industrial polymers, as it is doing elsewhere. By applying software-based upon neural networks and big data paradigms, robotic applications can be truly made to be self-sufficient and streamlined.
The future of the field of industrial polymer characterization is likely to undergo several evolutions in the coming years as current and future technologies are developed which will allow researchers the ability to work in ever-more efficient and dynamic ways within the laboratory.
References and Further Reading