Date of Thesis


Thesis Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering

First Advisor

Kat Wakabayashi


Polylactic acid (PLA) is a bio-derived, biodegradable polymer with a number of similar mechanical properties to commodity plastics like polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PETE). There has recently been a great interest in using PLA to replace these typical petroleum-derived polymers because of the developing trend to use more sustainable materials and technologies. However, PLA¿s inherent slow crystallization behavior is not compatible with prototypical polymer processing techniques such as molding and extrusion, and in turn inhibits its widespread use in industrial applications. In order to make PLA into a commercially-viable material, there is a need to process the material in such a way that its tendency to form crystals is enhanced. The industry standard for producing PLA products is via twin screw extrusion (TSE), where polymer pellets are fed into a heated extruder, mixed at a temperature above its melting temperature, and molded into a desired shape. A relatively novel processing technique called solid-state shear pulverization (SSSP) processes the polymer in the solid state so that nucleation sites can develop and fast crystallization can occur. SSSP has also been found to enhance the mechanical properties of a material, but its powder output form is undesirable in industry. A new process called solid-state/melt extrusion (SSME), developed at Bucknell University, combines the TSE and SSSP processes in one instrument. This technique has proven to produce moldable polymer products with increased mechanical strength. This thesis first investigated the effects of the TSE, SSSP, and SSME polymer processing techniques on PLA. The study seeks to determine the process that yields products with the most enhanced thermal and mechanical properties. For characterization, percent crystallinity, crystallization half time, storage modulus, softening temperature, degradation temperature and molecular weight were analyzed for all samples. Through these characterization techniques, it was observed that SSME-processed PLA had enhanced properties relative to TSE- and SSSP-processed PLA. Because of the previous findings, an optimization study for SSME-processed PLA was conducted where throughput and screw design were varied. The optimization study determined PLA processed with a low flow rate and a moderate screw design in an SSME process produced a polymer product with the largest increase in thermal properties and a high retention of polymer structure relative to TSE-, SSSP-, and all other SSME-processed PLA. It was concluded that the SSSP part of processing scissions polymer chains, creating defects within the material, while the TSE part of processing allows these defects to be mixed thoroughly throughout the sample. The study showed that a proper SSME setup allows for both the increase in nucleation sites within the polymer and sufficient mixing, which in turn leads to the development of a large amount of crystals in a short period of time.