Applying polymer science to save energy and improve renewable energy technologies

This article gives an outline of how scientific research into polymers is enabling breakthroughs in energy efficiency and renewable energy. It has been written to support the chat with Paula Bosch in March 2009.

Plastics are a type of polymer. Polymers are materials made by linking together many smaller molecules, known as monomers.  However not all polymers are the same as monomers can be combined in many different ways. What makes polymer so fun is that how they act according to the type of molecules they are made up of and how these are put together. These variations in structure give the resulting polymers very different properties and functions. The properties of anything made out of polymers really show what is going on at the molecular level.

So articles that are made of polymers look, feel and act depending on how their atoms and molecules are connected, as well as which one we use to begin with. This means that polymers such as plastics have a huge advantage over other materials, because they can be engineered to suit different applications. This chat will focus on the scientific research being carried out to develop environmentally beneficial technologies of the future, enabled by plastics.

Polymer science has been described as “the gateway to the future”, as it deals with our ability to develop ever-more sophisticated materials to suit the needs of society and the planet. Plastics are already playing a critical role in saving energy and resources across a variety of applications, such as transport, packaging, leisure, sports, healthcare and buildings. Thanks to their versatility and polyvalence, plastics have and will continue to enable a sustainable lifestyle.

Polymer scientists are conducting a great deal of research into the potential for plastics to provide cutting-edge renewable energy technologies. One such avenue is photovoltaics, which uses solar cells to convert light directly into electricity. These solar cells have traditionally used silicon as the key component, but plastics are being viewed by many as a key enabler of the solar energy of the future.

Plastic-based photovoltaic cells offer a number of advantages. They are lighter than silicon-based devices (which is important for small autonomous sensors), cheap to make, flexible, and offer great flexibility in terms of design. Plastic semi-conductors are also being developed that could eventually replace traditional silicon semi-conductors in some applications. Such semi-conductors could theoretically be capable of storing solar energy and then using the energy to emit light via an LED (light-emitting diode). 

Scientific advances in plastics will also be a key factor in improving energy efficiency. Using energy more efficiently is the single biggest contribution we can make to protecting the climate, and plastics will play an increasing role in this regard the future. Plastics thermal insulation in buildings already saves 150 times the energy needed for its production over its lifetime. However research is being made into ways to improve the thermal insulation properties of certain plastics, which will increase this saving even further. Since buildings use 40% of the energy consumed in the EU, improving insulation and reducing the fuel needed to heat buildings will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So what is behind these exciting developments? Polymer science research focuses on three principal disciplines, all of which are vital in enabling the development and application of new types of plastics:

  • Polymer chemistry: the study of chemical synthesis (the use of chemical reactions to create a certain product) and the chemical properties of polymers (e.g. how reactive they are); 
  • Polymer physics:  the study of the fluctuations, mechanical properties and polymer flow behaviour;
  • Polymer characterisation: the classification of polymers on a variety of levels, which allows us to understand their specific properties (such as strength) and the functions to which they are best suited.

This only gives a glimpse into the world of possibilities made possible by scientific research into plastics. We hope that this chat will demonstrate the many, many benefits that will improve our lives and protect the planet in the future.

Related information

Solar energy (PDF, 300 KB); Article published with the permission of PlasticsEurope
More about Dr. Paula Bosch, the chat guest
Chat transcript
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