Plastic Innovations: They’re Helping to Save Energy and Lives

Plastic Innovations

Previously published as “Are We Still Innovative?” in Plastics Engineering and posted here with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Innovation: the ability to create new products, new services, new markets. It’s one of the hallmarks of the American experience.

It’s also one of the key characteristics that Americans ascribe to plastics.

Plastic Innovations Enable Us to Do More with Less

According to opinion research, most Americans view plastics—and also plastics makers—as innovative. While plastics certainly have their detractors, most Americans agree that over the years plastics have made our lives better. And unlike some opinions about plastics, this belief is anchored in reality—plastics truly have been at the forefront of many modern advances.

Many in the industry have spent considerable resources reinforcing this opinion about plastic innovations. For example, back in the 1990s, plastic makers joined together to showcase ongoing innovations by highlighting how plastics made possible many of the products that had improved our lives—from incubators for premature babies to football pads for our teens to shatter resistant bottles in the shower.

Over the past few years, many of those same companies have been working together to underscore how innovative plastics have contributed to sustainability by enabling us to do more with less. From more fuel-efficient cars to minimalist packaging to energy saving building products, innovations in plastics have helped us do more in our lives with less impact on the environment. By enabling advances in global sustainability, modern plastics profoundly improved our ability to create a better life while caring for the future.

What Does the Future Hold for Plastic Innovations?

So that’s what plastics have done. Is this still the case today … or have plastic innovations run their course?

Not by a long shot. Seemingly every day there are exciting developments in innovative plastic materials technology, engineering, and chemistry that are making life easier, safer and more sustainable. Think: lighter weight aircraft. Stronger and safer automobiles. Composite wind turbine blades. “Active” packaging to reduce food waste. Even “unapologetically plastic” smart phones.

Frankly, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Perhaps now more than ever, innovations in plastics are allowing us to do things that very recently were unimaginable. So plastics (and their makers) will continue to contribute to new, cutting edge innovations in health/safety/medical equipment, aeronautics, 3-D printing, sustainability and more.

The Plastics Make it Possible® initiative of the American Chemistry Council posts weekly examples of new plastic innovations or promising research. The resulting “Innovation of the Week” compilation is impressive and quite diverse, from life saving wound dressings for the battlefield to an all-plastic umbrella that won an international design award. It’s an upbeat look at some serious, cool, and fun innovations made possible by plastics.

Some examples from the Plastics Make it Possible® Extreme Innovations web page:

Saving Lives with the Help of Plastic Innovations

  • Dissolving plastic heart stent—Heard of dissolving stitches? Now there’s a dissolving heart stent! It restores blood flow to the heart – and then dissolves into the body, unlike a metal stent.
  • Printing plastic bones—Doctors use plastics (PKKK or polyetherketoneketone) to replace 75 percent of man’s skull. Manufacturer says 3-D printed plastic implants can replace injured bones throughout the human body.
  • A few precious minutes—Synthetic platelets made with plastics may save lives by slowing internal bleeding of wounded soldiers or crash victims, researchers say.
  • Plastic eye lens—Hundreds or thousands of ultra-thin layers of plastics form a lens that works like the human eye lens – and potentially may be used to repair damaged human eyes.
  • Fighting infection—Revolutionary plastic that repels bacteria could be used in medical devices to improve the human immune system’s ability to fight infection.

Saving Energy with the Help of Plastic Innovations

  • The “power” of plastics—Breakthrough in solar power? Stanford University researchers have dramatically improved the ability of lightweight plastic solar cells to absorb sunlight and conduct electricity.
  • Taking flight with plastics—Plastics from Bayer and Solvay help lighten the load on innovative airplane that crossed the country using solar power. Next trip for the “Solar Impulse”? Around the world…
  • Corvette Stingray—Plastics + carbon fiber = ultra cool, lighter 2014 Corvette Stingray. Tough, lightweight plastic composites help cars go further on a gallon of gas – and improve safety and performance.

Self-healing Plastic Innovations

  • Heal thyself—Remember the liquid metal cyborg in Terminator 2 that could repair itself? Researchers have developed a plastic (nickname: Terminator) that heals itself after being cut into pieces.
  • Stronger under stress?—Duke University researchers have created a plastic they say actually gets stronger when stressed—it may find uses in artificial hearts and prosthetics. (Or maybe cell phones…?)

Innovative Feedstocks for Plastics

  • Dream Reaction project
—Can plastics be made from carbon dioxide? Bayer MaterialScience’s “Dream Reaction” project hopes to make it a reality.
  • Plastics from algae—Can algae + sunlight = plastics? Researchers have engineered blue-green algae that use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into a chemical used to make plastics, paints and fuels.

Plastic Innovations That Touch Our Lives

  • Cell phone repels water—OMG I dropped my cell phone in the sink!!! No worries, according to the maker of a “hydrophobic polymer layer” (OK, plastic) that coats the outside and the inside of some current cell phones.
  • High-five!—Ever wish you could give a friend a high-five through your computer screen? It may be possible in the future with a sheet of plastic bubbles that pop up to replicate the pressure of touch.
  • Plastic protectant—Tired of doing laundry? A new coating made with plastics is virtually impervious to most liquids. It could protect against stains and bacteria—maybe even biological and chemical threats on the battlefield.

Could some of these plastic innovations be created with other materials? Possibly some. But it’s the very nature of plastics—and our ability to manipulate, mold, shape and engineer them into countless permutations and myriad applications – that makes them so versatile and valuable. And vital to our need to innovate.

Improving our lives. Doing more with less. Living better while leaving a smaller environmental footprint. Saving money and resources… while caring for the future.

That’s pretty innovative.

Got a cool plastic innovation you’d like to share? Send it to info@plasticsmakeitpossible.com.

And be sure to check out more plastic innovations at plasticsmakeitpossible.com/extreme-innovations.