Newsflash

The drive for lightweight materials to reduce overall cost and environmental impact for automotive manufacturers is nothing new.  Fuel economy attracts car buyers too. That is how majority of steel parts have been replaced in F-150 pickup truck by aluminum parts, reducing overall weight over 500 pounds. Then there are alloys, carbon fiber and plastics composites.The ambition for lighter vehicles did not stop with alloys (magnesium, aluminum), and/or composites (glass, carbon fibers).  Recently, Japanese researchers at Kyoto University led by Professor Hiroaki Yano along with its industrial partners (Denso Corporation and Daikyo-Nishikawa Corporation) reported that they were developing cellulose nanofiber based materials for automotive as well as aircraft parts to reduce environmental footprint while increasing product performance.Inevitable questions are: 1) would these materials be cost effective? 2) What would be the service life of these products compared to the current ones? 3) How about the parts’ safety in situations like crash or fire?A final question that an automaker has to ask is: what would be the pay back time to replace current production line (machinery) to CNF based plastics line?Reference: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/08/15/business/researchers-japan-use-wood-make-cellulose-nanofiber-auto-parts-stronger-lighter-metal/#.WbAIKeTXuUm...
We know polycarbonates mostly from its use in plastics water bottles, safety goggles, smart phones, structural panels (glazing) and the list goes on.  A quick look at Wikipedia gives a spectrum of applications.However, polycarbonates have its weaknesses along with the BPA (bis-phenol) controversy. Polymers such as polysulfates and polysulfonates have similar if not better mechanical properties than polycarbonates.  The issue has been how reliably scale-up the manufacturing process of polysulfates and polysulfonates?“Click chemistry” is a concept in organic chemistry by which highly reactive reactions provide high yielding products and require little to no purification.  The concept was introduced by Nobel Prize winner Professor K. Barry Sharpless in 2001.A recent work published in Nature Chemistry, by a team of researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (La Jolla), Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory (Berkley), California and Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry & Soochow University, China claimed that reduced cost of catalyst, product purity, and by-product recycling make their work ready to move from laboratory research to industrial process.Chemists are at work indeed!References:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PolycarbonateK. Barry Sharpless et al; Nature Chemistry, 2017 DOI: 10.1038/nchem.2796...
In a recent The Atlantic interview Bill Gates made a wish on an energy miracle, “Here’s a source of energy that is cheaper than your coal plants, and by the way, from a global-pollution and local-pollution point of view, it’s also better”.  The race is on to find that source. One such energy source is solar energy. We all know that solar energy can be harnessed to generate thermal energy or electrical energy for use in the residential and/or in the commercial applications.  Any material that can store Solar Thermal Energy is called Solar Thermal Fuel (STF).  The quest to harvest solar energy, store the same and use it when needed has been the focus of research in industry and academia alike. For the first time, Professor Grossman’s team at MIT, Cambridge (USA) has come up with a new approach which uses polymer Solar Thermal Fuel (STF) storage platform utilizing STF in its solid-state.  According to the published article, researchers stated, “Closed cycle systems offer an opportunity for solar energy harvesting and storage all within the same material. This approach enables uniform films capable of appreciable heat storage of up to 30 Wh kg?1 and that can withstand temperature of up to 180 °C.”How the STF process works?Certain molecules (chemicals) can have 2 different stable structural forms. These structures are called conformations.  When original molecular conformation is exposed to sunlight, the molecule gets charged and the original conformation changes to the other and stay in that charged conformation for a long period.  The charged molecule snaps back to their original shape (conformation), when triggered by a very specific temperature or other stimulus generating heat in the process. Currently, developed polymeric film can release heat about 10 degree C above the surrounding temperature. Film property improvements are underway. German auto company BMW, has sponsored this research. Where the potential application lies - your guess is as good as mine.References:The Atlantic, p 56, November 2015Zhitomirsky, D., Cho, E. and Grossman, J. C. (2015), Solid-State Solar Thermal Fuels for Heat Release Applications. Adv. Energy Mater., 1502006. doi:10.1002/aenm.201502006...
In a recent The Atlantic interview Bill Gates made a wish on an energy miracle, “Here’s a source of energy that is cheaper than your coal plants, and by the way, from a global-pollution and local-pollution point of view, it’s also better”.  The race is on to find that source. One such energy source is solar energy. We all know that solar energy can be harnessed to generate thermal energy or electrical energy for use in the residential and/or in the commercial applications.  Any material that can store Solar Thermal Energy is called Solar Thermal Fuel (STF).  The quest to harvest solar energy, store the same and use it when needed has been the focus of research in industry and academia alike. For the first time, Professor Grossman’s team at MIT, Cambridge (USA) has come up with a new approach which uses polymer Solar Thermal Fuel (STF) storage platform utilizing STF in its solid-state.  According to the published article, researchers stated, “Closed cycle systems offer an opportunity for solar energy harvesting and storage all within the same material. This approach enables uniform films capable of appreciable heat storage of up to 30 Wh kg?1 and that can withstand temperature of up to 180 °C.”How the STF process works?Certain molecules (chemicals) can have 2 different stable structural forms. These structures are called conformations.  When original molecular conformation is exposed to sunlight, the molecule gets charged and the original conformation changes to the other and stay in that charged conformation for a long period.  The charged molecule snaps back to their original shape (conformation), when triggered by a very specific temperature or other stimulus generating heat in the process. Currently, developed polymeric film can release heat about 10 degree C above the surrounding temperature. Film property improvements are underway. German auto company BMW, has sponsored this research. Where the potential application lies - your guess is as good as mine.References:The Atlantic, p 56, November 2015Zhitomirsky, D., Cho, E. and Grossman, J. C. (2015), Solid-State Solar Thermal Fuels for Heat Release Applications. Adv. Energy Mater., 1502006. doi:10.1002/aenm.201502006...
Reliable and high performance lithium ion batteries commonly known as LIBS are highly sought after product by industries. We all have heard stories about laptops, electric vehicles, airplanes catching fires due to LIBS. Underlying problem is the battery overheating. Preventing batteries from overheating is crucial to the public safety.  Now a team of researchers at Stanford University designed a thermo-responsive (heat sensitive) plastic composite film made from polyethylene and spiky nickel microparticles coated with graphene which shuts down the battery if the temperature is too high.         In a recently published work led by Yi Cui and Zhenan Bao of Stanford University, USA concluded “Safe batteries with this thermoresponsive polymer switching (TRPS) materials show excellent battery performance at normal temperature and shut down rapidly under abnormal conditions, such as overheating and shorting.” How practical this design approach is? Time will tell.References: Y. Cui, Z. Bao et al Nature Energy vol.1, Article number: 15009 (2016); DOI: 10.1038/nenergy.2015.9Chemical & Engineering News, Page 7, January 18, 2016...
In aviation industry, the focus is how to improve fuel safety and handling. Mike Jaffe and Sahitya Allam gave their perspective on safer fuels by integrating polymer theory into design (Science, 350, No. 6256, p. 32, 2015).Mist (generated from the fuel) is much more flammable than the liquid and that is why anti-misting kerosene interferes with mist formation when a low percentage of a polymer is added into it.  The problem however, is that the polymer chain undergoes scission during handling and can’t assist in suppressing mist formation. The answer comes from a recent paper published in the Journal Science by Professor Julia Kornfield and her cross-functional team at Caltech, Pasadena, USA. The group designed a megasupramolecules having polycyclooctadiene backbones and acid or amine end groups (telechelic polymer) which is short enough to resist hydrodynamic chain scission while protecting covalent bonds through reversible linkages. Yes, polymers can be designed to suit our societal needs including aviation fuel safety.Reference: M-H Wei, B. Li, R.L. Ameri David, S.C. Jones, V. Sarohia, J.A. Schmitigal and J.A. Kornfield; Science, 350, (6256), pp. 72-75 (2015)...
At the TED conference, Carbon3D, a Vancouver based company touted a radical 3D printing technology and named it CLIP or Continuous Liquid Interface Product. CLIP grows parts instead of printing them layer by layer. It harnesses light and oxygen to continuously grow objects from a pool of resin.  The result: make commercial quality parts at game-changing speed.  CLIP is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing technique.  To make the point, Carbon3D web site provides a head-to-head comparison of CLIP to Polyjet, SLS and SLA.[Press release: March 16, 2015, Vancouver, Canada.  www.carbon3D.com]...
Self-healing plastics has been around for a while. Applications include self-healing medical implants, self-repairing materials for use in airplanes and spacecrafts. Even scientists have made polymeric materials that can repair itself multiple times. A recent report in Science describes a significant advance in self-healing plastics. The authors describe a product that mimics how blood can clot to heal a wound. When the plastic is damaged a pair of pre-polymers in channels combines and rapidly forms a gel, which then hardens over 3 hours.The authors demonstrated that holes up to 8 millimeters wide can be repaired. The repaired parts can absorb 62% of the total energy absorbed by undamaged parts.  Science never stops.Reference:S. R. White, J. S. Moore, N. R. Sottos, B. P. Krull, W. A. Santa Cruz, R. C. R. Gergely; Science, Restoration of Large Damage Volumes in Polymers, Vol. 344 no. 6184 pp. 620-623; (9 May 2014). ...
Knowingly or unknowingly, flexible electronics has become a part of our daily life.  Transparent conductive films (TCFs) are used in mobile phones, tablets, laptops and displays.  Currently, Indium Tin Oxide or commonly known as ITO is the material of choice.  But use of ITO has some major disadvantages and these are brittleness, higher conductivity at greater transparency, and supply of Indium.  This is where non-ITO materials come into play. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota (USA), Cima NaoTech’s uses its SANTETM nanoparticle technology, a silver nanoparticle conductive coating which self-assembles into a random mesh like network when coated onto a flexible substrate such as PET and PC.  According to a recent press release, the company stated SANTETM nanoparticle technology enabled transparent conductors in a multitude markets from large format multi-touch displays to capacitive sensors, transparent and mouldable EMI shielding, transparent heaters, antennas, OLED lighting, electrochromic and other flexible applications.  Cima NanoTech is working with Silicon Integrated Systems Corp. (SIS) of Taiwan and using its highly conductive SANTE FS200TM touch films to develop large format touch screens.References: Press release, San Diego, June 03, 2014; www.cimananotech.com ; http://www.cimananotech.com/sante-technology ; http://www.sis.com/...
In an article appeared today (January 29, 2014) in The Guardian newspaper, Stuart Dredge wrote, “From jet parts to unborn babies, icebergs to crime scenes, dolls to houses: how new technology is shaking up making things”1. Mr. Dredge was speaking about 3D printing technology.  The heart of this technology is the 3D printer itself. Stratasys, a company headquartered in Minneapolis, USA is the manufacturer of 3D printers.  It recently announced the launch of Color Multi-material 3D Printer, the first and only 3D printer to combine colors with multi-material 3D printing.  According to the press release2, by using cyan, magenta, and yellow, multi-material objects can be printed in hundreds of colors.  The technology is based on proven Connex technology.  While the base materials are plastics and elastomers, they can be combined and treated to make finished products of wide ranging flexibility and rigidity, transparency and opacity.  Designers, engineers and manufacturers can create models, mold, and parts that match the characteristics of the finished production part. This includes achieving excellent mechanical properties.  According to the manufacturer, print job in the newly revealed printer can run with about 30 kg of resin per cycle and prints as fine as 16 micron layers for models.  No wonder why some call the new Color Multi-material 3D printer a groundbreaking stuff.References: 1. www.theguardian.com.technology/2014/jan/29/3d-printing-limbs-cars-selfies (January 29, 2014)2. http://investors.stratasys.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=821134 (August 3, 2014)...
Instead of stitches or skin staples, doctors use skin glue to close wounds. The glue joinsthe edges of a wound together while the wounds heal underneath. Most of the timeskin glue is used for simple cuts or wounds. According to the paper published inScience Translational Medicine, there are no clinically approved surgical glues thatare non-toxic, bind strongly to tissue, and work well in wet and highly dynamicenvironments within the body. This is the reason why this published work is promisingwhere infants born with heart defects would benefit tremendously. Researchers at the Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston have engineered ‘bio-inspired’ gluethat can bind strongly to tissues on demand, and work well in the presence ofactively contracting tissues and blood flow. The authors of the paper show howthe glue can effectively be used to repair defects of the heart and blood vessels during minimally invasive procedures. [References: P. J. del Nido et al; Sci. Transl. Med., DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3006557; See also, www.geckobiomedical.com/news/gecko-biomedicals-co-founde.html]...
Stability of organic electronics in water is a major research challenge. For this reason,organic electronics has yet to see any sensing application in aqueous environment.However, as understanding of underlying mechanism of stability aspect is becomingclearer, new developmental efforts to make water compatible organic polymer devicesare taking place. Recently, Professor Zhenan Bao’s group in the department of chemical engineering at Stanforduniversity revealed in a paper published in the journal of Nature Communications thatsolution- processable organic polymer could be stable under both in freshwater andin seawater. Developed organic field-effect transistor sensor is able to detect mercury ionsin the marine environment (high salt environment). Researchers believe that the work hasthe potential to develop inexpensive, ink-jet printed, and large-scale environmental monitoring devices. [References: O. Knopfmacher, M.L. Hammock, A.L. Appleton, G. Schwartz, J. Mei, T. Lei, J. Pei,and Z. Bao; Nature Communications, 5, 2954, January 6, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3954]...
Insulin, the wonder medicine for diabetes was discovered about a century ago.Since insulin does not get into the blood stream easily, diabetes patients oftenhave injected themselves with insulin. Now a group of scientists led by Dr. Sanyog Jainat the Center for Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology of National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in Punjab, India has designed a polymerbased package for oral insulin administration. The package design addresses two major obstacles, 1) digestive enzymes must notdegrade insulin prior to its action and 2) the insulin gets into the blood stream.The package contained folic acid functionalized insulin loaded in liposomes.To protect the liposomes (lipids or fat molecules) they were alternately coated withnegatively charged polyacrylic acid (PAA), and positively charged poly allylamine hydrochloride. Studies were conducted to compare the efficacy of bothdelivery systems: designed polyelectrolyte based insulin and standard insulinsolution. Effects of oral administration lasted longer than that of injectedinsulin, authors reported in a recent article in Biomacromolecules. [Reference: A.K. Agarwal, H. Harde, K. Thanki, and S. Jain; Biomacrmolecules, Nov. 27, 2013;DOI: 10.1021/bm401580k]...
Research in the area of stretchable electronics is heating up!  Thanks to polymers. Led by Professor George M. Whitesides of Harvard University (USA), a team of researchers have demonstrated in a recently published paper in Science that ionic conductors can be used in devices requiring voltages and frequencies much higher than commonly associated with devices using ionic conductors.  The team showed for the first time that electrical charges carried by ions and not electrons, can be utilized in fast-moving, high voltage devices.As a proof of concept, the authors of the study built a transparent loudspeaker that produces sound across the full audible range i.e., 20 Hz to 20 kHz.  Components [such as VHB 4910 tape (acrylic tape with PE liner), polyacrylamide hydrogel containing NaCl electrolyte] used for the high speed, transparent actuators are described in the paper.Tissues and cells are soft and require stretchable conductors for biological systems. Many hydrogels are biocompatible which makes this work particularly an important one. The design of gel-based ionic conductors is highly stretchable, completely transparent and offer new opportunities for designers of soft machines.   [Reference: C.Keplinger, J-Y. Sun, C.C. Foo, P. Rothemund, G.M. Whitesides, and Z. Suo; Science, 341 (6149), pp. 984-987 (2013); DOI: 10.1126/science.1240228]...
Interweaving biological tissue with functional electronics, one can make bionic ears.  NASA has tested 3D-printed rocket engine part.  Then why not 3D print yourself?Well, Twinkind, a German start-up company is now offering enthusiasts statues of themselves for display.  How this works?  A full body scanner takes an image of the customer’s body, transfers the file to the printer after which 3D printer laser sinters a composite powder layer by layer into the customer image.Can we dare to say that Madame Tussauds wax figure of Voltaire can now be 3D printed in polymers soon!  [Reference: www.twinkind.com ]...
Polymer membranes have become a leading contender in numerous separation processes.  Be it in gas (air, hydrogen etc.) or be it in water purifications (salinated water, waste water etc.).  Not only polymer membrane technology helps reducing the environmental impact but also it is cost-effective.  Fracking in shell gas is one of many examples. New advances in drilling technology (such as horizontal drilling) have led to new hydraulic fractures called fracking.  Hydraulic fracturing requires about 2.5 to 5 million gallons of water per well.  Water management and its disposal are major costs for producers.One major challenge, however, of the membrane technology is the fouling (damage caused by contaminants) mitigation.  This has been recently studied by a group of researchers from University of Texas at Austin led by Professor Benny Freeman to address efficiency and reuse of water for fracking in shale gas plays.Researchers modified polydopamine coated UF (ultrafiltration) module by grafting polyethylene glycol brushes onto it.  The result is more hydrophilic surfaces which in turn improved cleaning efficiency relative to unmodified modules. The coating improves the membrane life, and can easily be applied to membrane surface by rinsing it through the recycling system.[References: D.J. Miller, X. Huang, H. Li, S. Kasemset, A. Lee, D. Agnihotri, T. Hayes, D.R. Paul, and B. Freeman; J. Membrane Sci., 437, pp. 265-275 (2013); Also see www.advancedhydro.net ]...
Flexible electronics can change the way we use electronic devices.  It is a term used for assembling electronic circuits by mounting electronic devices on a flexible plastic. A recent review article captured the advancement of CNT and graphene based flexible thin film transistors from material preparation, device fabrication to transistor performance control compared to traditional rigid silicon1. Silicon is used almost exclusively in electronic devices.Now Prof. Ali Javey led a team at the University of California, Berkley to develop a printing process to make nanotube transistors at room temperature with gravure printer.  The plastics used is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The device exhibited excellent performance with mobility and on/off current ratio of up to ~9 cm2/ (V s) and 105 respectively.  Also, maximum bendability is observed.  The paper authors conclude that this high-throughput printing process serves as enabling nanomanufacturing scheme for range of large-area electronic applications based on nanotube networks2. References:1. D-M. Sun, C. Liu, W-C. Ren and H-M Cheng; Small, DOI: 10.1002/smll.2012031542. P.H. Lau, K. Takei, C. Wang, Y. Zu, J. Kim, Z. Yu, T. Takahashi, G. Cho, and Ali Javey; Nano Letters, 13 (8), pp. 3864-3869 (2013); DOI. 10.1021/nl401934a...
Drinking coffee from paper cups are as common as drinking water from plastics bottle. The issue however, is recycling of disposable cups. The disposable cups are made up of 90-95% of high strength paper (fibers) with a 5% thin coating of plastic (PE).To address the recycling issue, James Cropper Speciality Papers of UK have developed a process which involves softening the cup waste, and separating the plastic coating from the fiber.  After skimming off the plastic, remains are pulverised and recycled, leaving water and pulp behind.  According to the company news release, the high grade pulp is reused in luxury papers and packaging materials.An innovative approach to address a common problem.[Reference: www.jamescropper.com/news ]...
A search for an alternative to rigid silicon wafers gave birth to the area of flexible or bendable electronics. Research has been intense for the past few years in the area flexible electronics as it opens up multitude of new applications. Polymers play an important role to exciting field of flexible electronics.In a recent research report, a team of scientist led by Prof. Ali Javey of University of California, Berkeley (USA)  has shown for the first time user-interactive electronic skin or e-skin can conformally wrap irregular surfaces and spatially map and quantify various stimuli through a built-in active matrix OLED display.  Three electronic components namely thin film transistor (uniform carbon nanotube based), pressure sensor, and OLED arrays (red, green, and blue) are integrated over a plastic substrate.  Spin coated and cured polyimide on a silicon wafer is used as the flexible substrate.  Details are in the paper.This work essentially provides a technology platform where integration of several components (organic and inorganic) can be done at a system level on plastic substrates. According to the paper, this e-skin technology could find applications in interactive input/control devices, smart wallpapers, robotics, and medical/health monitoring devices.    [Ref: C. Wang, D. Hwang, Z. Yu, K. Takei, J. Park, T. Chen, B. Ma, and Ali Javey; Nature Materials, Published online July 21, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/NMAT3711]...
Recent buzz in the technology world is 3D printing.  Researchers to designers are creating new products everyday using 3D printing technology.  Even eBay has unveiled its services to those looking to make their own creations using 3D printing App.Since ages composites have played a crucial role in our society. Inspired by natural (biological) composites such as bone or nacreous abalone shell, researchers from MIT (USA) and Stratasys have developed composite materials that have fracture behaviour similar to bones.  Using computer model with soft and stiff polymers, the team has come up with a specific topological arrangements (hierarchical structures) of polymer phases to boost the mechanical behaviour in the composites.Interestingly, the team has been able to manufacture (thanks to 3D printing) a composite material that is more than 20 times larger than its strongest constituent.  The referenced paper showed that one can use computer model to design composite materials of their choice, tailor the fracture pattern and then use 3D printing technology to manufacture the composites.[Ref: L.S. Dimas, G.H. Bratzel, I. Eylon, and M.J. Buehler; Advanced Functional Materials, Published online June 17, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201300215]...

 

Imagine a future in which we wear clothing that is self-cleaning.  Imagine painting your living-room wall to display a real-time image of another part of the world; or utiliz­ing greenhouse gas to make value-added products; or designing surfaces that selectively destroy viruses and pathogenic bacteria; or a sur­geon placing a removable stent that changes shape inside an artery of a patient’s body; the list goes on. What materials could provide all the prop­erties necessary for these and other future applications? Plastics!  My previous article1 covered a series of developments in specific areas of plastics technology—includ­ing advances in plastics nanocom­posites, plastics electronics, the self-assembly process, fuel cells, tissue engineering, and high-throughput techniques. As these areas keep maturing, other areas where plastics may be used are gaining attention. This article highlights some of the current activities that have commer­cial and social implications, and also offers a glimpse into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

The “Nano-World” 

How far will nanotechnology take us?  Consider one example: spider silk, known to be among nature’s most advanced materials, is strong, yet elas­tic. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (USA) have created elastomeric nanocompos­ites that rival spider silk2.  Applications of nanocomposites might range from tear-resistant films to elastic fibers to biomedical devices. An excellent overview of nanoparticles by Pitkethly3 explains why they are interesting and how nanoparticles are made, including the driving force behind nanomaterials; the article also covers market segments and health, environmental, and ethical issues. Another entry to the “nano-world” is carbon tubes, popularly known as carbon nanotubes (CNTs). A must-read article on CNT-polymer com­posites provides a detailed account of CNTs, processing methods for com­posite reinforcement, and a look into the future4. The unique structure of CNTs and their properties could have a huge impact on a variety of tech­nologies ranging from macroelectron­ics to solid-state lighting to organic solar cells to smart fabrics5. Research on organic photovoltaic cells (PV or solar cells) is now reaching a stage where polymer solar cells may rival silicon devices. Efforts are under way to enhance the efficiency and longevi­ty of plastic solar cells6.  Mixing quan­tum dots (nanocrystals) of lead selenide with conducting polymers such as MEH-PPV (phenyleneviny­lene) or polythiophenes have led to a ramp-up of electricity7,8.  Using quan­tum dots, Professor Sargent’s group at the University of Toronto (Canada) has shown how to turn infrared power into electricity in a printable solar cell9.  Konarka’s photovoltaic technology is unique in that it can use both visi­ble and invisible light sources to pro-duce electricity. The technology is based on cold sintering the dye-sensi­tized (nanosized light-absorbing-dye­coated titanium dioxide) PV material to plastics. Currently, Evident’s pro­prietary EviDots™ (active throughout the solar spectrum) are being com­bined with Konarka’s conductive poly-mers to create ultrahigh-performance solar cells (hybrid solar cells) that might exceed the capabilities of today’s best silicon-based technologies.  The quantum dot power plastic could be used for demanding energy, com­munications, and military applica­tions. Professor Kamat’s group came up with a novel approach to use SWCNT (single-wall CNT) as a nanowire network (kind of a conduct­ing scaffolding) to disperse titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which increased the photoconversion efficiency twofold. References are for interested readers10-13.  

In a different type of application, scientists from University of California, Los Angeles, and Nanomix Inc. have demonstrated that CNT transistors fused with CO2-detecting polymers could determine CO2 con-centrations in both ambient and exhaled air14.  Its application?  A real life sensor that could monitor human breathing at a disaster site by detect­ing concentrations of CO2.  Likewise, pressure-sensitive adhesives (PSA) based on CNT composites could find applications in electronics packaging and in assembly of displays15.

Creativity Abounds 

Outside the nano-world, numerous exciting works are being carried out in numerous fields that might spur com­mercial applications in the near future. The competition to bring flex­ible electronics to market spurred Polymer Vision, a Dutch firm (a spin-off from Philips Electronics), to enter into an agreement with Telecom Italia to develop and launch the world’s first rollable display for mobile devices16.  A spinoff from the University of Illinois (USA), Semprius Inc., a start-up based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, has developed a two-step process for making large-scale, high-performance electronic circuits that can be applied to a thin plastic-film surface. A major source of carbon is fossil fuels. New routes from bio-renewable resources to chemical intermediates to polymers are becoming an integral part of the sustainable-development strategy to conserve energy. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (USA) have converted high-fructose corn syrups into a poly-mer precursor HMF (5-hydrox­ymethyl furfural) as an alternative to petroleum-based material used in many plastics17.  Researchers at Cornell University (USA) have pio­neered a zinc-based catalyst that could combine carbon dioxide and limonene oxide to make poly­limonene carbonate18, a polymer pro­duced by alternating copolymerization that has many characteristics of poly-styrene. The use of sugars and vitamin C to reduce the amount of copper catalyst could create new possibilities for an environmentally friendly cata­lyst system19.  At the Center for Environmental Technology and Engineering of Massey University of New Zealand, work is being carried out on dairy-farm effluent with the objective of better understanding the transient stages of fermentation—in an effort to create more efficient bio­plastics20.  Much of today’s talk on bioplastics is about corn. Slowly but surely, researchers are exploiting the fierce “work ethic” of bacteria and using their genetic secrets21,22. Poly-(3 hydroxy-butyrate (PHB) is a very common energy-storage material in many microorganisms, such as Alcaligenes, Azotobacter, Bacilus, Nocardia, Pseudomonas, and Rhizobium. PHB belongs to the poly­hydroxyalkanoates (PHA) group, a family of polyester. Its physical prop­erties are comparable to those of polypropylene (PP). The difference is that PP shows the least degradation while PHB shows complete degrada­tion. Producers of PHAs already vary their properties by playing with their feed. For example, when Ralstonia eutropha H16 is fed hydrogen or car-bon dioxide, it could make PHAs. Companies like Metabolix, Kaneka, Biomatera, and Biomer are actively pursuing research to make different grades of PHAs utilizing different bacterial hosts, feeding regimes, and co-feeding target monomers. Recently, the bacterium’s two chro­mosomes have been sequenced23 to identify 50 genes that are involved in producing PHAs. Taking advantage of polymers’ swelling character, engineers and doc­tors from Stanford University24 (USA) and from institutes in Germany partnered with GE Corporate Research to create a novel hydrogel called DuoptixTM, which can swell to a water content of 80%. The hydrogel is transparent and per­meable to nutrients, which makes Duoptix a promising candidate for developing artificial corneas—an application that could give sight to the blind. Other similar applications of the hydrogel are being explored.  Scientists are using polymers as building blocks for creative science. When charged polymeric coatings are applied on surfaces like spikes, they are able to poke holes to destroy the viral or the bacterial lipid membrane25.  The process of creating ordered stiff surface wrinkles on a polymeric substrate is vital for various technological applications such as in biological sensors and in optical dif­fraction gratings. A team of scientists did just that by exposing a focused ion beam on a flat polydimethylsilox­ane (PDMS) surface26.  Another study27 focused on developing meth­ods to prevent polymer films from buckling by controlling their surface topographies. Since the first pub­lished work on Atom Transfer Radical Polymerization (ATRP)28, it has become an active area of research. The beauty of ATRP is that it can chemically combine diverse monomers to produce specialized polymers. Consequently, one could develop surfaces that are hard on one side and soft on the other, or soft on top but sticky on the bottom29

Tapping the Potential of Plastics for the Future

In the domain of nanotechnology, carbon-nanotube-based polymeric materials will herald an era of their own. Work will continue to focus on unique applications and in mass pro­duction of carbon nanotubes while safeguarding health and the environ-ment. The rivalry with silicon-based technology will intensify. New initia­tives will focus on harvesting free, clean, and inexhaustible solar energy with greater efficiency.  Flexible pho­tovoltaics will capture both visible and infrared light, but the challenge will be to produce more power and manufacture photovoltaics on a com­mercial scale.  RFID tracks life from creation to death. This technology is already widely in use and is responsible for saving of millions of dollars in logistic planning. Smart polymers will act as stimuli-responsive switches that will have a tremendous impact in bioengineering research. Attention in creating plastics will gradually shift from petroleum deriva­tives to plants and microorganisms. Developing additives for applications in stringent conditions will continue to challenge researchers, whether the additives are for synthetic polymers or for natural polymers and biopolymers. More and more design engineers will use biomaterials in their creativi­ty. Ross Lovergrove’s design ethic (DNA–Design, Nature, and Art) will inspire up-and-coming industrial design engineers to take more innova­tive approaches. The use of polymers in space will be creative, and not just for space suits and robots with muscle; the challenge we’ll encounter is how to explore the terrain of Mars. Already, MIT researchers (Professor Dubowsky’s group) are investigating how a “swarm” of plastic mini-probes, powered by fuel cells, could hop, bounce, and roll across the Martian surface. These probes could carry sensors and cameras, and should able to communicate with other probes through a LAN and transmit the data to Earth.

Ultimately, regardless of where and how we employ plastics in the future, responsible initiatives are needed, those that keep in mind the bigger picture—a sustainable, safe, and healthy planet Earth.

References

 

1.      P. Mukhopadhyay, Plastics Engineering, pp. 28-37, Sept. 2002.

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[This article was originally published in Plastics Engineering in June 2007 – Editor]

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