Plastics of the future

Photo of Benjamin Rodriguez

Plastics can even be made out of sugar. So-called polylactic acids could be suitable for use as soft foils, though this would require their production process to be improved. This is what Benjamin Rodriguez Hernandez is working on; he is a young Mexican scientist who is planning to complete his doctorate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research in Potsdam in 2021. Read here why he is conducting his research in Germany.

Plenty of plastics nowadays are made of natural resources. Biodegradable polylactic acids are becoming increasingly popular, for example. These substances are the subject of the research being done by the doctoral student Benjamin Rodriguez Hernandez, who works at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research in Potsdam-Golm.

Polylactic acids, sometimes known simply as polylactides, are derived from sugar. When the sugar undergoes fermentation, lactic acid is produced and converted into lactide. This is then used to make the polymer PLA (polylactic acid).

A bioplastic PLA is being used in more and more commercial applications. There is still one obstacle to its widespread usage, however: PLA is comparatively brittle, which means it is not currently suitable for use as a soft foil. There would therefore be technical advantages if PLA were somewhat more flexible. Rodriguez is trying to modify the production process to increase the elasticity of the plastic. To this end, he is experimenting in the lab, adding a softener to the material. During production, this is incorporated into the existing polymer like an additional link in the chain.

To Germany via an exchange programme

Rodriguez was born in Mexico and studied chemical engineering there. He first came to Germany in 2012: an exchange programme organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) gave him the chance to work at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). At the time, he was also able to do an internship at a company in Frankfurt-Höchst. As Rodriguez explains, he received a lot of support from the DAAD at that time, for example with finding a place to live and opening a bank account. “My reception was first class.” All the same, he admits that it was not easy at first to adapt to the different culture in Germany. However, there were many students from Latin America in Karlsruhe and they helped one another. His decision to learn German in preparation for his stay in the country also proved helpful, and today he speaks the language fluently.

After his year abroad, Rodriguez returned to Mexico and did his bachelor’s degree in Monterrey. But by 2015 he was already on his way back to Germany: this time to do a master’s in polymer science run jointly by several universities in Berlin and Potsdam. He graduated in 2017, his final dissertation being on the subject of polylactic acids.

During his master’s degree, Rodriguez visited the Fraunhofer Institute in Potsdam-Golm – and saw the research being done there on polymers. “That’s exactly what I want to do”, he said to himself. His wish came true, and in 2018 he began his PhD under Dr Antje Lieske, head of the Polymer Synthesis department at the Fraunhofer Institute. His work is additionally supervised by the Technische Universität Berlin. Rodriguez hopes to complete his doctorate by October 2021.

Considerable support for research work

What the Mexican likes about Potsdam is above all its parks – he has discovered the joys of hiking and has even begun training to run a marathon. At first he was amazed to discover how seriously Germans take their hobbies. But now he thinks it’s great.

After his PhD, Rodriguez would like to remain in applied research and perhaps work for a company. As he explains, there is considerable support for work on biopolymers in Europe, and especially in Germany.

Author: Sven Titz