The Future of Polymers - Angela Gupta
Human civilisation has progressed from the Stone Age, to Bronze, Iron, Steel, and the Age of Polymers – which is where we currently stand. The post-World War II bloom of plastic production irreversibly revolutionised consumerism, giving us an almost utopian vision of exciting possibilities as we suddenly possessed the power to transcend the societal and economic limitations of natural resources. Polymers are versatile and have a vast scope of applications because it is the microstructure, the arrangement of specific monomers covalently bonded together, that give rise to a unique combination of macroscopic physical properties. This allowed various industries to exploit the unique and convenient properties of plastic. Looking forward, they can be utilised to develop sophisticated technology, such as plastic electronics from polyacetylene that can be converted into LEDs to produce flexible screens. Their biocompatibility means that they can drastically boost the medical industry too, creating artificial skin, organs, and membranes for kidney dialysis. Through reinforcing polymers with carbon-fiber or graphene, automotive and aerospace industries can enhance polymer performance and produce lighter, safer, and more fuel efficient vehicles.
Today, we don’t seem to be sufficiently equipped to combat the global domination of the Covid-19 virus, so the development of polymers is arguably more urgent than ever. Polymers composed of sugar on their backbone are crucial in helping us better understand the binding interaction between pathogens and our immune cells. Furthermore, polymers are ideal for face shields and ventilator components because thermoplastic is durable and can withstand aggressive sterilisation methods. To alleviate the current strain on supply chains, it is important to focus on improving automated polymer synthesis machines. A way to increase production efficiency and maximise yield is through employing continuous-flow chemistry.
Yet, this allure of material wealth cannot blind us to the catastrophic environmental consequences, and demands have to be met in a sustainable way. The robustness and durability of plastics is a merit – but also its detriment. Since they aren’t biodegradable, they accumulate in landfills and oceans and persist as microplastics, releasing toxic by-products. Nevertheless, the use of plastic is so embedded within our society that it is unrealistic to aim to become completely plastic-free.
Our main approach of tackling this waste problem is through reducing, reusing and recycling, but this is only effective to a certain extent; recycling is expensive and only 2% of plastics maintain their quality after being recycled. Recycling is also dependent on human behavioural habits. As scientists, it isn’t ideal to be overly reliant on the behaviour of the general population, which is why we have a duty to focus on the sustainable design of polymers themselves, rather than only product design. Developing biodegradable bioplastics is a viable approach, as most plastics are derived from fossil fuels, a nonrenewable source. An example would be fermenting corn or sugarcane to produce lactic acid, which is converted to lactide, the monomer of polylactic acid. They can then be hydrolysed back into lactic acid and metabolised to CO2, H2O and CH4 by microorganisms, potentially serving as plant nutrition. Therefore, waste is minimised and a circular plastic economy is created, where renewable sources are the building blocks as well as the eventual products of degradation.
This is also a form of converting waste to energy, so we would be simultaneously combating the problem of the escalating energy demand. However, this instigates the question of whether it is ethical to use food sources as feedstock for polymers and place unsustainable pressure on the agricultural industry. Thus, it may be ideal to utilise biotechnology to produce sources of synthetic sugar.
Additionally, self-healing polymers have the potential to be at the forefront of sustainable material production because they don’t require external energy input to spontaneously reform exceptionally strong and elastic bonds when split. These materials of greater tolerance of mechanical stresses alleviates the necessity of constant replacement, thereby aiding with our efforts to minimise wastage. However, the expense of production remains as an obstacle to expanding these to a large industrial scale. This demonstrates that our abilities to actualise creative ideas of versatile applications is hindered by the price, time consumption, complexity, and environmental consequences of the precise manufacturing process. Thus, in order for biodegradable bio-based polymers and self-healing polymers to fully replace conventional plastics, interdisciplinary cooperation is required.
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