Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

The pluses on plastics: examining the potential of polymers

Polymer granules
A lot of the new developments tend to come from the medical/
healthcare and electronic areas, which are business-led, profitable areas for companies to concentrate on.

Stuart Patrick
Stuart Patrick, Chair of the Polymer Society at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), tells Science Omega Review’s Amy Caddick about the potential of polymers…

Plastics, rubbers and proteins all have one thing in common: they form part of a group of materials known as polymers. These chemical compounds consist of molecules bonded together in long repeating chains to create a specific material. Because of their durability and flexibility, polymers are the lifeblood of a number of industries including food and drink retailers, manufacturing, healthcare and the pharmaceutical sector.

Over the years there have been significant strides made in polymer research, enabling the creation of complex plastics and rubbers – many of which have had far-reaching benefits for society. However, while polymers are extremely useful, there has also been some controversy regarding the waste management of plastic and rubber products, particularly in regards to plastic packaging. Plastics and rubber artefacts can be difficult to dispose of, and although increased recycling of plastics has gone some way to combating the problem, there is still concern regarding how to tackle this.

The Polymer Society at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) supports and fosters development of the polymer industry. By creating a platform to share research knowledge and discuss developing areas such as sustainability, it enables a link between industry, academia and government.

Here, Society Chair Stuart Patrick shares his thoughts on the importance of polymers, why they are so useful and what the future holds for the industry with Science Omega Review’s Amy Caddick.

What are the practical applications of polymer materials?
Because polymers are lightweight, can be made to suit different end-use requirements and can be processed in many different ways, there are many types. A lot of them are used in building and construction materials, healthcare – with delivery of drugs or blood – and also in the body for replacement heart valves and for controlled drug release. Healthcare is a very interesting market. Other applications cover transportation, sports and leisure, agriculture and electricals and electronics.

Short life areas include, of course, packaging, which has had some criticism because of the litter aspect and single-use bags, but generally from a packaging, food conservation and preservation point of view, polymers themselves offer very good low-cost protection for food with minimisation of waste.

What strides have been made in application-oriented research and development of plastic technologies?
I think that one of the main things is to look at the sustainability of polymers covering re-use, recycling and recovery.

Quite a lot of polymers are based on carbon sources and are oil or gas derived. It’s a finite resource and for that reason there has to be a system of reclamation and re-use for most polymers at end of life. In particular recycling has made some big advances. Additionally, bio-derived polymers, which are based on renewable agriculture-based carbon sources, have made great advances.

A lot of the new developments tend to come from the medical/healthcare and electronic areas, which are business-led, profitable areas for companies to concentrate on.

Why is it important to study and develop polymer research?
Just to give some context on the polymer research aspect – the number of universities and colleges in the UK that are offering purely polymer related courses is diminishing, for various reasons. There’s a core of universities that offer good polymer-based courses, particularly at post-degree level.

It is important that these institutions continue with polymer research to develop new ways to utilise these versatile materials. That came out of a recent conference that looked at all sorts of new areas to which polymers can bring benefits.

Is there a lack of skilled graduates?
I haven’t got the numbers on those that specialise in polymers, but what people tend to do is study materials generally and during the course polymers are covered quite extensively at the universities and colleges that offer this option. From a UK perspective, I do know that there is a lack of students willing to start out on material science courses (or any type of science or technology-based course). So I’m not so sure about a shortage as far as graduates are concerned, but there’s certainly a shortage of apprentices.

The polymer sector isn’t unique to this. There’s a whole batch of people who have gone through the industry at various levels, know the business and are now retiring and moving on, but there’s no one to take over. We’re crying out for apprenticeships in this area, and that is being addressed as well.

Is there enough funding for this research?
I think there probably is. If you look at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) website, there is a section on polymer materials listing where there’s some research work being done. Obviously, you could say there’s never enough research being done in this area, but in general activities involving polymer materials and research, there probably is enough. Nothing excessive of course, but both the EPSRC and the Technology Strategy Board cover these areas reasonably well.

What would you like to see for the future of polymer research?
Obviously to continue to expand our horizons, to develop the potential of polymers – and, of course, there are many different polymers. I think, again from a sustainability point of view, there probably needs to be a focus on waste plastics and how to get the best out of mixed consumer waste. It is being looked at, but that’s an area that needs to get more attention.

How does the UK compare to other regions?
I think we do have a good base knowledge of polymers. I have to say that the other leaders are in Europe, with India and the Far East coming up fast. We still have a very sound base knowledge of polymers and polymer research at various universities and other organisations in the UK. Some colleges, as I’ve said before, have struggled to stay in the game for lack of numbers coming into the courses, but the UK now is pretty strong.


Stuart Patrick
Chair
The Polymer Society
Institute of Materials Minerals and Mining (IOM3)

www.iom3.org


[This article was originally published on 1st July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 02]


MORE ARTICLES FROM SCIENCE OMEGA REVIEW EUROPE ISSUE 2

Previous: Energy-efficient nanoelectronics…
...by quantum tunnelling in nanowire switches...

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