by Janice Hamilton
One would think that scientists already know all there is to know about
polyethylene. After all, it has been around since the late 1930s and is
used to make the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag, as well as toys and
common packaging products.
However, some of polyethylenes physical and chemical properties
remain unknown, and Assistant Professor Paula Wood-Adams is investigating
I am interested in plastics and how they behave when you melt them
and shape them into objects, she explained.
When Wood-Adams joined the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
in May, she brought both an expertise in plastics and a background in
chemical engineering to Concordias interdisciplinary materials science
She studied at the University of Alberta and worked as a research engineer
for Dow Chemical in Edmonton for three years before coming to Montreal
in 1993 to take graduate studies in chemical engineering at McGill University,
under polymer expert John Dealy.
She has had a temporary position at McGill since 1998, teaching and carrying
out industry-sponsored research. Then came the offer of a permanent position
Wood-Adams arrival has boosted the number of women in the department
to two out of 25. She admits mechanical engineering is a field that still
has a masculine image, and is pleased that a third woman will
join the faculty in January.
Wood-Adams has a five-year NSERC University Faculty Award, an award designed
to increase the representation of women and aboriginal people in the sciences
and engineering. It will pay part of my salary and allow me to reduce
my teaching load and focus on research, she said.
She said she was offered a research position with Dow in Texas, but turned
it down, not only because Texas did not appeal. She prefers a university
environment, where she has more freedom to go off on tangents and control
the pace of her work. I also like the contact with the students.
Her research falls into an area known as rheology, the science of the
deformation of materials. It looks at the properties of fluid and semi-solid
materials such as clays, concrete, oils, inks and polymers.
Wood-Adams explained that polyethylene is sold to a processor as pellets.
These pellets have to be melted, pumped and stretched into the desired
form, so the materials flow properties are important.
Recently, manufacturers started to use a new type of catalyst to make
polyethylene. This catalyst improves flexibility of the polymerization
process, but in order to use that flexibility, engineers have to understand
how the structure of the polymer molecules affects the properties of the
material. She has been investigating those properties.
Wood-Adams adds that polyethylene is a good learning tool because what
you learn from one polymer can apply to another, and polyethylene is easy
to work with experimentally.
Her other major research interest is theoretical. There are different
techniques to characterize the structure of polymer molecules: what they
look like, their shape, how big they are. My interest is in how these
techniques work from a theoretical point of view. She is collaborating
with the polymer group at Waterloo University.
Wood-Adams is continuing to supervise some students at McGill and to use
experimental facilities there. She says Concordia has given her a
little bit of space to set up a lab here, and she has applied for
money to buy some instruments. She expects to have more space when the
new engineering building is complete. Meanwhile, she will find her niche
in the materials science group.