By Frank Antosiewicz
A National Science Foundation Career Award is helping a University of Massachusetts at Lowell researcher explore ways to improve plastics made from the inedible portions of sugarcane and to help encourage more women to become plastics engineers.
Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline, an assistant professor in the UMass plastics engineering department, won a $400,000 five-year grant from NSF. The program recognizes top young university scholars who effectively integrate research into their teaching.
“Our objective is to find if blending bioplastics with other bioplastics — or even petroleum-based plastics — to see if we can improve the properties to make them more durable and adaptable,” said Sobkowicz-Kline in a phone interview.
She and her students have been extruding different bioplastics to find materials that work best in manufacturing. Sobkowicz-Kline said the goal is to cut use of conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels and to produce materials that can be used for textiles, packaging and for durable goods. They also could also be adapted for medical devices.
She said that the number of women in plastics and mechanical programs have been low, and “one of my objectives is to keep the pipeline open and to help make transitions easier.”
Sobkowicz-Kline, who joined the UMass faculty in 2011, said she got her first degree in chemical engineering. After working with the oil and gas industry, and with the municipal water treatment, she decided that “she wanted to make a difference in the environment.”
She earned her doctorate in chemical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.
She has worked to become an expert in renewable plastics, nanocomposites and developing environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques. Her research interest also covers electroactive plastics which change shape or size when stimulated by electricity and can be used in the conversion of solar to electrical energy.