« Energy education and its future | Main | Using Lifecycle Thinking to Protect the Climate »

What is the future of plastics?

The widespread use of polymers is just a 100 years old, a miniscule period compared to materials such as metal or wood. In this time, polymers have transformed people’s lives in many previously unimaginable ways.

However, in an era of fossil fuel constraints, do plastics as oil derivates still have a place in the material mix of the future?

In fact, plastics are flexible, resource-efficient and adaptable to the changing needs of society. They can provide innovative solutions to challenges such as energy generation and distribution, as well as reduce the consumption of natural resources.

Plastics also play an integral role in the development of new technologies to help manage the energy crisis. Polymers are the basic material for flexible solar cells, providing a range of functions that are required by fuel cell membranes; rotor blades and weather-resistant turbine components for wind power stations must be made from plastics to ensure that they withstand rough weather con¬ditions, on and off shore.

Photovoltaics (which capture energy from the sun) are already widely used across many applications, from solar panels on the roofs of buildings to solar farms on fields and pastures. These sys¬tems cannot operate without components made from polymers with insulating, sealing and protective properties. Photovoltaic cells are increasingly printed onto plastic film. For countries with a lot of sun, the potential uses of photovoltaics are limitless: mobile solar cells can be integrated into small mobile devices. Similarly, vehicles can be covered with a thin layer of photovoltaic film to generate electricity.

Plastics can also help save natural resources. A new product showing us a glimpse of the future is Perfectuile, an innovative tile manufactured from recycled HDPE and LDPE (two types of plastics. It is the first plastic tile to combine ecological performance with aesthetics, lightness and solidity, as well as heat and sound insulation. It is highly resistant to wind, snow and hail and will not flake or crack. The manufacturing process allows for waste recycling with an energy balance lower than that for ceramic tiles, and at a cost lower than that for slate.

Polymers can also save valuable drinking water. Thanks to smart engineering, modern washing machines consume much less water than ever before. At the end of the 19th century, washing machines used about 100 liters of water per washing cycle. Modern machines and modern detergents have helped cut this figure to 50-60 liters. This helps the 24 million households in France that wash 100 times/year, save at least 950 million liters of water!

Plastics are also fundamentally changing hi-tech products. OLEDs (Organic Light-Emitting Diodes) are already used for the illumination of mobile phone, PDA and e-book reader displays – with polymers as the source of illumination. These diodes are very bright, very efficient and they consume very little power. Plastic displays have become flexible and can be rolled or moulded into any desired shape. One of their very latest applications is about to enter many homes in extra-flat television screens, which are even flexible and can be rolled up.

Thanks to new research, advanced polymers are now also making sophisticated contributions in medicine. German researchers have worked with plastic electronics to develop new flat screens. Electrochromic substances that change colour in an electric field work to show colours and attractive lettering on plastic foil. This new technology could be particularly useful on medical packaging, by displaying multi-lingual, potentially life-saving information at the touch of a button.

Personal health monitoring may also become possible by incorporating sensors into clothes to measure and transmit vital information, such as blood pressure. In this way, smart textiles could transform the lives of people suffering from chronic disorders, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, by detecting warning signs early and regardless of the wearer’s location.

This is just a tiny glimpse of some of the ways in which plastics can help shape the future. No-one can say what the next 100 years will bring, but plastics can contribute to helping mankind face the unpredictable challenges ahead.

Comments

Thank you so much for putting that together. It was very insightful. Now I'll be looking at plastic on a different perspective.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)