An international research team, led by scientists at the University of Arizona, has discovered a new, and relatively simple process for converting sulfur into lightweight plastic.

Lead researcher, Jeffrey Pyun, from the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says he became interested in this research because of the large amount of waste sulfur that results from oil and natural gas refining.

"It was surprising to me that there is so much sulfur in the world that we don't know what to do with it. Basically they have sulfur cities and building equivalents".

His project, however, does more than potentially eliminate some of that waste sulfur; it makes that sulfur useful. The process, however, required developing some new chemistry.

"We got our heads together and we thought about ways that we could actually use sulfur directly as a solvent. So we just melt it, put in one chemical, and got the very useful plastic." The researchers laud the elegance of such a simple approach.

Pyun says this sulfur-based material will not replace more common plastics. However, it has specific properties that make it useful for making things such as high-capacity batteries, which can help fuel the next generation of electric cars. Already, the plastic has been used to produce a lithium-sulfur battery, with a capacity five times higher than current lithium-ion batteries.