Arizona University Research team developed lightweight lenses infrared-light detection devices using waste sulfur

Using waste sulfur to make lens for infrared-light detection devices

12:07 PM, 21st April 2014
University of Arizona research on  lightweight lenses
The left-hand image of UA researcher Jared Griebel was taken through an ordinary piece of plastic using an infrared camera. The ordinary plastic does not transmit infrared light. The image of Griebel on the right was taken through a piece of the new sulfur-based plastic with an infrared.

ARIZONA, US: Research team led by University of Arizona has developed a new use for the sulfur left over from oil and natural gas refining: made into a plastic polymer, the material can be made into cheap and lightweight lenses for infrared-light detection devices. Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles. The team successfully took thermal images of a person through a piece of the new plastic. By contrast, taking a picture taken through the plastic often used for ordinary lenses does not show a person’s body heat.

“We have for the first time a polymer material that can be used for quality thermal imaging – and that’s a big deal. The industry has wanted this for decades,” said Jeffrey Pyun, senior co-author, University of Arizona.

“These lenses and their next-generation prototypes could be used for anything involving heat detection and infrared light, such as handheld cameras for home energy audits, night-vision goggles, perimeter surveillance systems and other remote-sensing applications,” said Robert A Norwood, Professor, University of Arizona.

According to Norwood, the lenses also could be used within detectors that sense gases such as carbon dioxide. Some smart building technology already uses carbon dioxide detectors to adjust heating and cooling levels based on the number of occupants.

“In contrast to the materials currently used in infrared technology, the new plastic is inexpensive, lightweight and can be easily molded into a variety of shapes. The researchers have filed an international patent for their new chemical process and its application for lenses. Several companies have expressed interest in the technology, said Pyun, Associate Professor, University of Arizona.

Norwood and his colleagues in the University of Arizona tested the optical properties of the new lens materials and found they are transparent to mid-range infrared and result in lenses with high optical focusing power.

The team’s discovery could provide a new use for the sulfur left over when oil and natural gas are refined into cleaner-burning fuels. Although there are some industrial uses for sulfur, the amount generated from refining fossil fuels far outstrips the current need for the element.

The international team’s research article, “New infrared transmitting material via inverse vulcanization of elemental sulfur to prepare high refractive index polymers,” is published online in the journal Advanced Materials.

Norwood said the new plastic is transparent to wavelengths of light in the mid-infrared range of 3 to 5 microns – a range with many uses in the aerospace and defense industries. The new lenses also have a high optical, or focusing, power - meaning they do not need to be very thick to focus on nearby objects, making them lightweight.

Depending on the amount of sulfur in the plastic, the lenses have a refractive index between 1.865 to 1.745. Most other polymers that have been developed have refractive indices below 1.6 and transmit much less light in the mid-range infrared.

Pyun and colleagues reported their creation of the new plastic and its possible use in lithium-sulfur batteries in 2013. The researchers have filed patents for that technology as well and several companies are interested.

Pyun and first author Griebel, a University of Arizona doctoral candidate in chemistry and biochemistry, were trying to transform liquid sulfur into a useful plastic that could be produced easily on an industrial scale.

The chemists dubbed their process ‘inverse vulcanization’ because it requires mostly sulfur with a small amount of an additive. Vulcanization is the chemical process that makes rubber more durable by adding a small amount of sulfur to rubber.

To make lenses, Griebel poured the liquid concoction into a silicone mold similar to those used for baking cupcakes.

“You can pop the lenses out of the mold once it’s cooled. Making lenses with this process – it’s two materials and heat. Processing couldn’t be simpler, really,” said Pyun.

The team’s next step is comparing properties of the new plastic with existing plastics and exploring other practical applications such as optical fibres.

© University of Arizona News

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