The Era of “Miracle Plastics” Dawns

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The Era of “Miracle Plastics” Dawns

It’s hard to imagine a modern economy without plastics.  They touch virtually every aspect of our lives, and they have been nearly indispensable since at least the 1960s. 

But, in spite of the emergence of other revolutionary materials — like metallic glass, carbon nanotubes, and exotic metal alloys — plastics technology is nowhere near plateauing.  In fact, the global demand for breakthrough plastics and new applications of these and more conventional plastics is rapidly accelerating. 

Some of the latest innovations are “application specific,” while others represent materials with new or expanded characteristics that will allow the American market to do what it does so well:  invent creative and beneficial new uses that never even occurred to the original developers of the materials. 

The biggest drawbacks of today’s plastics involve: 

  • Their limited strength.
  • Electrical properties that keep them from replacing metals.
  • Their tendency to scratch and crack.
  • The cost and availability of plastic feedstocks to meet the needs of the 4 billion members of the global middle class of 2030.
  • Disposal problems related to their toxicity and durability.

Fortunately, all of these drawbacks, and many more, are already being addressed, and new breakthroughs seem to occur nearly every month.  To understand how, let’s review some of the latest new plastics and their amazing properties.

One of the most positive characteristics of plastics is their durability.  But the downside is that, after they are discarded, they sit in a landfill virtually forever.  That’s why recent advances in the area of biodegradable plastics are so important:

  • One innovation transforms lignin, a complex compound derived from wood, into a renewable plastic when combined with resins, flax, and other natural fibers.1  The substance is called Arboform and it can be thermo-formed, foamed, or molded.  It is a durable material that can be cast very precisely, yet degrades into water, humus, and carbon dioxide once placed in a landfill.
  • Another biodegradable plastic is being developed by Brazilian researchers at Sao Paulo State University.2  It is reinforced with nanocellulose fibers from bananas, pineapples, and other pulverized plant fibers, creating a material that is three to four times stronger than petroleum-based plastics, and 30 percent lighter.  In addition, it is more resistant to heat, chemicals, and water.  Although it rivals Kevlar in strength, it is renewable and biodegradable...

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