Fantastic Plastics

The 3rd chat of the Energy is our Future (FuturEnergia) school programme, school year 2008-2009, touches the subject of plastics and how their physical properties make them suitable for various intriguing and surprising applications.

This article is intended to provide background information to support the chat activity and also to enable teachers to introduce the topic into their lessons. The chat is hosted by Averil MacDonald, a British expert who was awarded with "Women of Outstanding Achievement in Science, Engineering and Technology 2007: For Science Communication".

If you take a look around you and imagine your life without plastics you will find that your classroom is full of objects either fully made of plastics or with plastic components. Perhaps you have a plastic chair? If not, at least the classroom TV or radio has plastic components. There are probably cellular phones in the classrooms. They definitely have plastic components, as well as cars, bikes, pencils, cups, insulation systems, calculators and so on.

But why is this? What are the specific benefits of plastics that make them so popular with manufacturers? This chat will help answer these questions by demonstrating how the properties of plastics make them valuable across many different applications. It will also tell you about some of the environmental benefits made possible by the use of plastics products.

The building blocks for making plastics are small organic molecules. Each of these small molecules is known as a monomer ("one part") because it is capable of joining with other monomers to form very long molecule chains called polymers ("many parts"). Different polymers have different properties and therefore producers have to match the intended use of a product with the capabilities of the polymer.

For example, if you do not want the product to melt, you use a polymer which is heat resistant. If you additionally want the product to keep the heat, you choose a polymer which is also a good thermal insulator. Polymers can be designed in many different ways by organising their chain of molecules. This makes polymers an excellent design material.

This flexibility in design has many benefits. One great example is packaging: only 3.1g of plastic is needed to package 100 g of product. The benefits of plastics packaging are clear: in the developing world, around 40% of food is wasted between being harvested and arriving in the home. In a society that makes widespread use of packaging this figure is around 3%.

Other examples of the benefits are:

  • in building insulation: over its lifetime plastics building insulation delivers energy savings of 150 times the energy needed for its production
  • electronic equipment: early computers required a complete room, while today – thanks to plastics – a small laptop can do even more
  • and renewable energy technologies: wind, photovoltaic and solar heat devices contain technical components that are only possible due to plastics.

To finish, we invite you to consider what our future will look like with plastics. What innovations will be made possible by plastics to solve the important challenges of today?

Plastics are already being used in ever-greater volumes to improve the environmental performance of vehicles (lightweight plastics help decrease the quantity of fuel used by a vehicle) – will this trend continue? Plastics are also being used in a variety of ways in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) devices such as phones and computers, including the development of conductive polymers to replace traditional superconductors. What new uses could there be for plastics in the technology of the future? What are the possibilities in medicine, sport and renewable energy?

Related information

More about Averil MacDonald
Chat transcript
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