In the beautiful surroundings of the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus, Dr Julia Mofokeng, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, finds inspiration in working tirelessly towards a healthier environment. To combat the damage that plastic does to the environment, she is investigating the morphology and properties of polymer blends, composites, and nanocomposites. Her aim is to find a product that causes less harm than the non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for short-shelf life and disposable products.
Although efforts have been made to recycle plastic bottles and packaging material, it does not have any significant impact, Dr Mofokeng says. “Up to 40% of annually produced plastics are used by the packaging industry, of which most end up in landfills. Our landfills are full of non-biodegradable, petroleum-based materials. Through wind, they end up in the vicinity of our wildlife, where they are mistaken for food by animals and result in diminishing wildlife, since they cannot digest these plastics. Other such plastics end up in our aquatic environment, polluting the water, and diminishing marine life as well.”
But it doesn’t end there, she explains. “During incineration of these petroleum-based plastics, harmful gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide, dioxins, and furans are released – which are major atmospheric polluters.”
Not much has been done about biodegradable polymer blends that are compatibilised and reinforced with inorganic nanofillers. “Only recently, researchers became aware of a process to improve the end product that can be used for packaging, replacing polystyrene service ware, or single-use crockery, cutlery, and nappies, for example. It can also be used in aerospace and automotive industries for interior parts. Since these products can be composted or recycled, disposal is not such a big problem,” she says.
Dr Mofokeng’s research, which pivots around preparing completely biodegradable polymer blends and blend nanocomposites, has been presented at 14 local and international conferences, and she has published 12 articles in specialised peer-reviewed journals. Her drive towards a healthier environment is just starting, and this dynamic researcher plans to establish her own research group. “Our aim will be energy saving and environmental awareness, and I will groom, empower, and prepare postgraduate students for the research world.” We look forward to seeing much more great work to come from Dr Mofokeng.