UNT researchers developing polymers for non-stick cooking without toxic adhesives

Friday, February 22, 2008

Researchers at the University of North Texas are hoping to develop a new, safer non-sticking cooking surface to replace the current generation of nonstick surfaces that potentially can emit a suspected carcinogen.

"If it was easy, somebody would have come up with this already," said Witold Brostow, UNT Regents Professor of materials science and engineering who is leading the efforts of the researchers at the university's Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials. Research has been underway since 2000, and was recently cited in the journal, "Chemistry and Industry."

The current generation of nonstick cooking surfaces -- polymers made with the element fluorine -- date back to the 1930s, but were not commonly used in cookware until the late 1950s. They are prized for their nonstick abilities and chemical resistance, but, when scratched or exposed to high heat, can release an adhesive between the polymer and the pan that may cause cancer.

Brostow said the challenge in developing a next-generation nonstick cooking surface is a three stage process, beginning with the development of new polymers.

"First, we have to come up with a substance that is both nonstick and durable. Second, we have to come up with a nontoxic adhesive to bond the substance to the metal, ceramic or glass pan. Then we have to persuade the industry that this is a viable process that's no more expensive than current nonstick products," he said.

Even if a new polymer is found that can do a comparable job to what is currently on the market, Brostow said cost becomes an issue for the manufacturers.

"Even with the potential of toxicity with current nonstick products, they're still used. The industry is resistant to change," he said.

Several years ago the Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials developed a polymer with low friction and wear resistance using an additive originally developed for NASA, Brostow said. But that new polymer costs $1,000 for one-third of an ounce -- hardly applicable to use

in the average kitchen.

The focus now is on polymers with similar properties that are cheaper to produce. Brostow predicts a new, nontoxic polymer can be developed within three years. He adds one possibility is to develop polymers that directly bond to the pan itself, without an adhesive in between.

Brostow said the work is conducted using an array of scientific techniques.

"Nanotechnology is one of the tools we have at our disposal. However, we also have other tools, including irradiation and magnetic field application," he said.

Brostow has been asked to write a book, "Polymer Tribology," for John Wiley and Sons. He intends to write it when the challenging problems his lab works on are solved.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108