The quantity of plastic used across all industries is enormous. It is astonishing to think about the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis. Yet, we rarely think about this material or even consider the amount of effort that goes into making these products. The furthest thing from the consumer’s mind is all the research and work that goes into producing quality plastic products that innovate the world we live in.
Whether or not we know or are interested in the products the plastics industry produces, we should realize that research is continually developing in this area. Leading manufacturers are constantly coming up with new ways to use plastics – a diversification that benefits the plastics industry as well as the environment, the health industry, construction and just about every other industry in the world. The purpose of these new plastic products is to better serve the consumer, but also to reduce the cost of consumer goods, improve people’s health, their life, to make renewable energy more available and to reduce plastic waste.
A Good Example of Plastics Growth Lies In Solar Energy
We all know that the solar energy industry is growing quickly. But we also realize that up until now solar energy has been expensive. This is all changing in the present manufacturing arena. New technologies appear on the horizon yearly and this new innovation reduces costs and improves efficiency. For example, today there are more than a few types of solar cell technologies leading to less expensive solar products. One such product type is a plastic photovoltaic solar cell. The solar cell uses conductive polymers or organic molecules to absorb light, transfer the charge and create electricity.
New solar cells are made of plastic which is affordable but also processes light better because of its plastic content. However, the new plastic polymer requires special processing for the materials to crystallize properly into thin films. Extensive research at Cambridge University looking to improve and lower the costs of these solar cells has found a way to make the polymer solar cell without the need for specialized treatment. The purpose of this research and fabrication is to improve conductivity by using amorphous polymer blends and another component.
The newer plastic organic solar cells work because light stimulates the electrons in the polymer, which in turn creates a movement towards the positive side of the cell. The space left by electrons, known as holes also move to the positive part of the cell. Recent research notes that polymers used in the current solar cells do not transport the holes effectively, so an added component helps improve the hole conductivity. It is research advances like this that simplifies the product fabrication and reduces its cost leading to more consumers using solar panels.
Adding Plant-Based Products Helps Reduce Waste
Consumers and plastics industry experts have major concerns when it comes to disposal. Humans produce more than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. We only recycle about 9 percent of this waste. We incinerate about 12 percent and the remaining 79 percent ends up in landfills, where it takes forever to degrade. To reduce this problem, several companies in the plastics industry are working to combine plant-based materials like potato starch or cornstarch with cellulose. This alternative plastic degrades more quickly and does not release toxins into the environment. The challenge is to get these new combinations of cellulose and plant combinations, called bioplastics, to function just as well as oil-based plastic. Modern plastics companies are performing the research to create bioplastic material that is more resistant, even immune to elements such as hot liquids.
Better Ways of Making Polymers
Researchers from Rice University are in the process of using sunlight to grow functional synthetic polymers. They use photosensitive quantum dots of only a few nanometers wide as a catalyst. By doing this successfully, plastics companies can reduce the cost of making polymers. They can replace the molecular catalysts and metals we use today. Researchers believe this new method leads to highly controlled polymer growth and to the development of new polymers that could work in solar energy as well as other products. They may also help in the distribution of agricultural implements and tools for the veterinary and emerging life.
Consumers Expect More from Modern Plastics
Customers expect more from the plastics industry every day. Customers expect higher quality, better technology and tighter tolerances. Customers want plastics to perform more like engineered type products that can handle higher heat ranges. They expect plastic products to be more durable and have greater uses. They want plastic products to go directly into the manufacturing process on the floor without having problems and at the lowest cost possible.
To meet all of these customer demands, leading plastics organizations are investing heavily in technology. They are moving towards Industry 4.0 manufacturing technologies.
The need to meet manufacturing customer requirements is causing plastics companies to enter the era of automation. Robotics increases efficiency and productivity. So to answer your question as to where the plastics industry is headed. The answer is forward. The idea is to be ready for a future where plastic will be a major component of most manufactured products on the market today.