Synthetic plastics were a product born of the industrial age, and one of the greatest enduring technological breakthroughs of the era.
But even though synthetic plastics were first seen publicly in the 1860s, it was not until the electrification of cities and improvements in chemical technologies driven by both World Wars during the twentieth century that modern plastics really took off. Interestingly, these developments are closely related, particularly the synergy between oil and plastic. This is because the raw materials needed to make most plastics come from petroleum and natural gas and also because fossil fuel provided the power to mass-produce plastic products (and wage war). The rest as they say, is history.
Today we are so completely surrounded by plastic, its almost as if we’re packed in it. It is an essential component of the modern lifestyle; we wear it, modern medicine depends on it, we pack our food and drink in it, use it in houses and buildings, cars, planes, plumbing, gardens, and even gadgets. It is cheap, easy to produce and vitally important to our modern way of life.
But despite our dependence on plastic, we are still very much a civilization of the steel age- where most of our large high-tech structures require the strength of metal alloys at the heart of their design. However as the twenty-first century takes us further into the technology era, it is almost certain that plastics- or more correctly, the polymers that create them will play a very important role.
New plastic (or polymer) technologies which incorporate bioplastics, carbon fibre, nanomaterials, electroactive and bioactive materials will create a whole new range of products, with a whole new range of uses.
Bioplastic products that are derived from renewable biomass (plant/microbial) sources as opposed to petroleum products are increasing in their sophistication and availability. Not only do these products have all the properties of traditional plastics, they are less energy intensive to produce and the biodegradable forms avoid many of the environmental issues plastics cause today.
Plastics that are formed with carbon fibre to make strong and lightweight composite materials are already revolutionizing air travel. While these materials have been already used extensively on military aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the first commercial aircraft to exploit the aerodynamic and fuel saving benefits of this technology.
Not surprising the Virgin Galactic fleet for consumer space travel also use composites- the same design using steel would make their operational model almost impossible due to the extra weight. And as we begin to make manned journeys into deep space, expect those spacecraft to be made out of these new materials as well. Meanwhile back on earth, as our transportation evolves toward electric power, you can expect the chassis and shells of cars to benefit from the design lessons learned on aircraft.
Many of these composite material designs are actually inspired by structures that occur in nature. In 2007, scientists developed a transparent plastic as strong as steel and as thin as a sheet of paper by mimicking the molecular design of seashells using artificial polymers. These breakthroughs allow for a whole range of new building materials that no longer require the traditional and energy intensive investments of steel, bricks, glass and mortar. Building made out of these plastics will be erected more quickly, built more strongly, and most importantly cost less.
Other fields will also benefit from these advances. Electro-active plastics will allow everything from solar cells through to mobile electronics to be made out of plastic materials, without the need for metal circuits. Bio-active plastics will revolutionise medicine, promoting wound healing, advancing our diagnostic capacity and assisting direct drug delivery. It is even envisaged that 3D printers will be able to help treat damaged bones and joints with synthetic replacements in real time surgery.
You can also expect to see our clothing benefit from futuristic fabrics although it is unlikely we’ll be looking like crew from Star Trek, although its certain some of us will choose to. Fashionable clothes that are stain resistant, water repellent, self-cleaning and change colour as your require are already available, but will improve with the next generation of design. As will clothing that incorporates mobile communications into the fabrics. And if that is not futuristic enough for you, I’m sure the photonic cloak of invisibility will be for all of us.
Watch FiST Chat 52: Plastic Hazards for more on this topic.