Fantastic plastic? It’s all in the chemistry
Senior Lecturer Lachlan Yee is renowned for his work in polymer science – the science of plastics. This includes current research on designing and implementing new polymers and biopolymers for industry and society, but which also benefit the natural environment.
Dr Lachlan Yee laughs as he recalls younger days in the 1980s when the pinnacle of personal technology was the Commodore 64 home computer.
“What a thing it was,” he said. “Compare it to the technology of today and it was clunky, slow, limited, noisy and bland. Yet it was absolutely thrilling at the time. In personal computing terms, it was a marvel.”
It also helped inspire Dr Yee’s passion for science and technology, although it would be in chemistry where he found his niche.
Today, Dr Yee is renowned for his work in polymer science – the science of plastics. This includes current research on designing and implementing new polymers and biopolymers for industry and society, but which also benefit the natural environment.
Plastics and polymers that aid the environment? That sounds incongruous given their role in a global waste crisis led by an estimated 360 million tons of plastic produced and discarded around the world every year.
However, Dr Yee said science is rapidly making advances, turning to nature itself for solutions and strategies.
As a polymer chemistry researcher in Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, Dr Yee is using the tools of polymer science to tackle challenges such as pollution, reducing plastic waste and making products using biodegradable polymers.
“Biopolymers come from nature, from plants and animals and bacteria,” he said. “In fact, insect exoskeletons are nature’s plastic and unlike synthetic polymers, they biodegrade quickly.
“There is a lot of research around how biopolymers may form the basis of new polymers that do no harm to the environment and yet can still be used in industry, technology and society.”
There is no concealing Dr Yee’s enthusiasm. Investigation and discovery have been his drivers since he was a boy.
Chemistry came first – and again he laughs at the memory – because it was the one subject in which a competitive Lachlan could outdo his best mate and greatest academic rival at NSW’s Umina High School.
While always possessed of strong environmental sensibilities, a scholarship to the University of NSW led Dr Yee to study industrial chemistry. He followed his undergraduate degree with Honours in glass chemistry and a PhD in molecular polymer chemistry.
Professionally, his career began somewhat eclectically as part of a research team working with polymer technology to accelerate the light-shade-light transition in eyeglass lenses.
The success of their endeavour included publication in the esteemed journal Nature Chemistry and also fed Dr Yee's passion for Applied Chemistry.
His next role was in marine science and microbiology, culminating in advances such as the development of new marine paint to prevent biofouling – the process in which bacteria colonise submerged surfaces – instead of using toxins like tin and copper that bring detrimental effects to areas including aquaculture systems.
“We used plastics to basically talk to the bacteria, using their own chemical signals,” said Dr Yee. “It was a great insight into how plastics/polymers might be applied for the benefit of the environment.”
Such potential centred Dr Yee’s subsequent involvement in research around soil purification, this time encouraging bacteria to devour chlorine toxins.
Since joining Southern Cross University in 2010, Dr Yee has successfully combined teaching and research, with a focus on the value of polymer science in overcoming environmental challenges.
“It is exciting to be working with plastics and polymers used for good. I am aware of the legacy that polymer science has left in relation to plastic waste. It is good to be using my plastics knowledge to benefit the environment.
“Also, I have always loved teaching and so it is gratifying to be helping the next wave of scientists who will take this important work to new levels of possibility and achievement.”
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