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Photo degradation of plastics. By Paul Dornath Chemistry 226 H Spring 2007. What are plastics made out of?. Plastics are large molecules called polymers composed of repeated segments called monomers with carbon backbones.

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Photo degradation of plastics

Photo degradation of plastics

By Paul Dornath

Chemistry 226 H

Spring 2007

What are plastics made out of
What are plastics made out of?

  • Plastics are large molecules called polymers composed of repeated segments called monomers with carbon backbones.

  • Sometimes plastics are made with other chemicals that may form organic molecules when plastics degrade.

Solar radiation
Solar Radiation

  • 43 % of all the solar radiation is in the inferred spectrum, greater than 700 nm (This does little to plastics other than heating them).

  • 52 % is visible light 700 – 400 nm

  • The last 5% is ultraviolet 400 to 290 nm

Global UV plot (dark green is the highest)

What exactly counts as uv anyway
What exactly counts as UV anyway?

  • The lower boundary in Earth’s atmosphere solar UV spectrum is caused by ozone shielding

  • UV radiation can be classified as near, far or extreme UV but it is also possible to classify UV radiation in terms of UVA, UVB and UVC

Uva uvb uvc

  • Plastics tend to break down when exposed to UVA or higher radiation. (340 nm for the CH3-CH3 bond)

  • UV is ionizing radiation

  • The bonds between the atoms in many plastics have dissociation energies that are very similar to the quantum energy present in UV radiation.

Plastic degradation
Plastic degradation

  • UV energy absorbed by plastics can excite photons, which then create free radicals.

  • While many pure plastics cannot absorb UV radiation, the presence of catalyst residues and other impurities will often act as free radical receptors, and degradation occurs.

Pet plastic bottle experiment
PET Plastic bottle experiment

  • When I went to India I noticed that they sell all their soda and water bottles outside in the sun!

  • Other studies have shown that onions mutate when grown in water from PET bottles left in the sun for many weeks.

My questions
My Questions

  • What happens to PET bottles when they’re left in the sun for ten days?

  • What chemicals are leaching into the water from the plastic?

Pet plastic
PET plastic

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic is a polymer made from ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.

  • PET is the also known as #1 plastic

Project goals
Project goals

  • One: Simulate the previous testing conditions but expose bottles for only ten days.

    • Expose bottles to UV radiation and 18º-30º Celsius temperatures for 12 hours a day for ten days

    • Continuously expose bottles to 40º C in the dark

    • Leave control bottles in the dark at room temperature (18º plus or minus 2º)

  • Two: Use mass spectrometry to find the concentration of terephthalic acid in each sample

Goal 1 building an ultraviolet incubator
Goal #1: Building an ultraviolet incubator

  • Used 500W Halogen light to simulate the sun

  • Installed an air conditioning system to maintain temperature.

Gc ms testing
GC-MS testing

  • A Gas chromatogram- mass spectrometer can be used to find the relative abundance of chemicals in a solution.

  • Molecules produce specific peaks at a certain time.

Molecules in the tested water
Molecules in the tested water


Ethyl Benzene

Benzoic acid

4-methyl Benzoic acid

91 Dalton Peak

105 Dalton Peak

91 and 119 Dalton Peak

Mass spec charts
Mass Spec charts

Control bottle

35 day UV test

Mass spec charts1
Mass Spec charts

Ten day UV test

Ten day dark test


  • PET bottles can degrade in the sun and in the heat. This could be a health issue and more tests should be run under these conditions to analyze the safety of using PET as a food storage material.

Possible future tests
Possible future tests

  • Test with Fruit flies by adding the test water to the media

  • Grow onions with water from five week UV test

  • Perform a growth curve using yeast in treated water.

  • Create a standard curve for how much leaching occurs over time