Why Do We Innovate?

Woman sitting in airplane looking out the window

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

A recent article in USA Today asked: are today’s newest planes going to end jet lag? The article’s author, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, asked that question after long flights in both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. He reported: “Breathing problems? No. Dry eyes and nasal passages? Didn’t happen. On both flights, after the meal service I fell into a deep sleep and only woke minutes before landing, feeling incredibly refreshed.”

So he set about to find out why. His answer? “Plastics. More specifically, carbon (fiber)-reinforced plastic composites.”

Imagine for a moment: the end of jet lag. Since the dawn of long distance flight, jet lag has been the bane of business and leisure flyers alike. While time zone differences are partially to blame, the effects of jet lag also are caused by the airplane cabin’s conditions, such as reduced air pressure and low humidity.

On a conventional aircraft, the cabin is pressurized at 8,000 feet, equivalent to the altitude of the Beaver Creek ski resort in the Rocky Mountains. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who “travel to terrestrial altitudes above 6,500 feet experience acute mountain sickness, a syndrome characterized by symptoms of headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, lassitude, and sleep disturbance.”

But by largely replacing aluminum with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics in the frames of these two planes, the cabins can be pressurized at 6,000 feet. Apparently the aluminum frames would bend and flex at that pressure, adding stress that would shorten the plane’s lifespan. But the new materials resist that fatigue.

Plus these new planes can retain more humidity to increase passenger comfort. As a Boeing representative was quoted in USA Today about conventional aircraft: “Humidity can be detrimental. Metal corrodes,” eventually weakening aircraft structures and requiring repairs. “But carbon fiber doesn’t care if it gets wet.”

Adding to the benefits: the planes are lighter, so they use less fuel.

Now, we’ve been flying in aluminum-framed airplanes for decades. Aren’t they “good enough?”

Well … if we could help avoid “symptoms of headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, lassitude, and sleep disturbance,” plus get better fuel mileage, wouldn’t we do it?

Of course. And that’s just one reason we continue to innovate.

Plastics and Innovation

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.

According to opinion research, most Americans view plastics—and also plastics makers—as innovative. While plastics may have some detractors, most Americans agree that over the years plastics have made our lives better. And plastics truly have been at the forefront of many modern advances.

In 2012, the Plastics Make it Possible® initiative began publishing weekly examples of new innovations and promising research in plastics. The resulting “Innovation of the Week” compilation is impressive and quite diverse, from dissolving heart stents to clothing made with plastics retrieved from our oceans. It’s an upbeat look at some serious, cool, and fun inventions and discoveries made possible by plastics.

Here are some examples from the Plastics Make it Possible® Innovations of the Week web page:

Saving Lives and Limbs

  • It saves a life, then disappears—FDA has approved a plastic heart stent that does its job—which entails opening a heart blockage and dispensing medication—and then dissolves over time.
  • 3-D printed replacement bones?—The future: print me a new bone! Scientists have developed a 3-D printed “hyperelastic bone,” a plastic composite that integrates into existing tissue to replace or help grow new bone.
  • Expanding plastic bone graft to treat spinal injuries?—Scientists at the Mayo Clinic are developing a biodegradable plastic bone graft that expands inside the body to replace bone—it could change the way doctors treat spinal injuries.
  • Lifesaving clean water is in the (plastic) bag—Clean water for those who lack access… from a plastic bag. Singapore-based WateROAM says its portable filtration system removes bacteria and other pathogens—without electricity.

Saving Resources

  • Sneakers made from plastic bottles—These sneakers come in “green”? Nike uses recycled polyester plastic to make its lightweight Flyknit sneakers, diverting more than 182 million plastic bottles from landfills, says Nike.
  • Solar energy everywhere?—Researchers used plastics to create perhaps the thinnest, lightest solar cells ever—they potentially could be placed just about anywhere: your hat or shirt, a smartphone, spacecraft…
  • Car parts made out of thin air—Ford plans to make foam plastic cushioning and car parts from carbon dioxide. Ford’s CEO says “… this technology is enabling solutions that even two or three years ago weren’t possible.”
  • Saving energy/cutting emissions at summer games—Dow (“Official Carbon Sponsor of Rio 2016”) helped offset CO2 emissions this summer, in part by using energy-saving foam plastic insulation in the stadium and building construction.
  • Beautiful solar roofs that work like venetian blinds—Elon Musk says SolarCity’s new roof tiles will use a “very durable plastic” film to create a venetian blind effect, so the sun reaches the solar cells but people see only beautiful tiles.
  • “Underfoot” solar power made with recycled plastics—Solar sidewalks? A startup is making energy-generating pavers that use durable recycled plastics to protect solar cells from foot traffic. Next plan: kinetic energy from footsteps.
  • Save food, save resources—Fight food waste! Innovations in plastic vacuum packaging help prevent spoiled food, saving precious resources. As The Economist puts it: “Vacuum packaging helps enormously.”
  • New pouch can join bags, wraps in recycling bin—Recycle! New technology is used to make plastic pouches for granola, nuts, and other foods—these pouches can be recycled with plastic wraps and bags at more than 18,000 US retail stores.

Whaaa?

  • Add some plastic microfibers and… —Bendable concrete? Researchers use tiny plastic microfibers—thinner than human hair—to make concrete for roads that is stronger, lighter, longer lasting, and flexible.
  • Canine inspired safety—Look what we learned from Fido! Scientists 3-D printed a plastic “nose” for bomb detectors, based on dog-inspired sniffing (rapid in-out sniffs). They say it works 16X better!
  • 3-D printing plastics, medicine, food in space?—Far out? Researchers are exploring ways to make plastics, medicine, and even food in space using 3-D printers and bacteria. Instead of flying stuff to Mars, maybe we can just make it there.
  • Beer, Bruges, and a big pipe—How to move millions of gallons of beer through the medieval city of Bruges without trucks and traffic? Historic brewery’s answer: two miles of plastic pipe. Residents even helped fund it.
  • Plastic skin that can feel and heal—Prosthetics that can feel? A chemical engineer at Stanford is creating plastic skin designed to help people who’ve lost limbs recover their sense of touch…and heal itself when cut.
  • Flying sky high with plastics—What a view … a near-space exploration company plans to send intrepid travelers 20 miles above Earth in capsules suspended from high-altitude polyethylene plastic balloons.

Could some of these innovations be created with other materials? Possibly. 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 desire 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 why we innovate.