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The importance of polymers

It is not difficult to imagine the impact that research into new polymers is going to have on current society in the near future. All new technology, from supersonic planes and high speed trains down to tiny batteries for mobile phones, encompassing opto-electronics, new surgical implants and new synthetic tissues, requires a wide ranging set of materials to be developed with very specific properties. Without research and knowledge about new polymers (plastics in layman’s terms), these technologies could not be developed in the future and might not even be imagined.

Foreseeable developments for polymers by 2020 are driven by two fundamental facts. The first comes from our extensive knowledge of them. Although discovery and research into polymers is relatively recent compared to other materials, polymer science has achieved considerable success in synthesizing new monomers and polymers, describing the kinetics and thermodynamics of polymerisation, determining micro-structure and crystallinity, predicting the chemical composition of polymers and copolymers, studying molecular relaxation and thermal transitions, mechanical properties, electrical conduction, polymer-polymer and polymer-load interactions and in knowledge on viscoelasticity and polymer transformation processes. This knowledge acquired in the field of polymers has been recognised worldwide and has received 5 Nobel Prizes. The second is due to the intrinsic properties of polymers: wide availability and infinite possible polymeric structures; low density, which makes them much lighter than other materials, easy to process with low energy consumption; economical; and, most importantly, a wide spectrum of specific properties: conductors and insulators, transparent and opaque, flexible and rigid, impermeable and permeable, and they can attain comparable resistance to metals.

Photo: D'Arcy Norman

Photo: D'Arcy Norman.

Polymer science in 2020 will face significant challenges including adhesion phenomenon and control of surface and interface chemistry; obtaining polymers with “ordered” architecture on a nanometric scale and determining the effect of confinement on the end properties of polymers; the origin of molecular dynamics and their possible generalisation, simulation programmes that make it easier to predict the structure of any polymer and its properties. This aims to obtain a “custom-built” polymer for each need. Polymers also have a “sustainability commitment” to the environment and so they have to tackle a very important challenge: finding new sources of obtaining polymers apart from oil.

In 2020 polymer materials will have major technological opportunities in areas such as Energy, Health, Transport and the Environment. We could give some examples: natural biodegradable polymers such as starch, cellulose, polylactic acid, etc for packaging. This is driven by the commitment to generate “zero waste” by 2030.

Biomaterials to regenerate tissues in the human body working from specific “in vitro” specific cell crops, using a support (normally a porous and biodegradable polymeric system) and its later implantation in the organism and biomaterials for all types of implants in the human body.

Polymers for manufacturing roll-up screens (flexible electronics). Nanostructured polymers that, in combination with other materials, will be used as nanosensors and materials which respond to stimuli. Polymer based compound materials will see an increase in demand for massive use in transport (aeronautics, trains, automotive, etc.) and in energy production systems (wind turbines).

Fortunately, to be able to meet these challenges, society can count on great researchers specialised in polymers, an important industrial sector dedicated to these materials and specific research programmes for this field of science and technology.


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