Polymers have moulded the society of today, and will continue to shape the society of tomorrow.
The emergence of 3D plastic printing from sci-fi dream to off-the-shelf reality has changed society’s approach to manufacturing. The use of such technology has become widespread in industry, particularly for prototyping, and is now sufficiently cheap to find its way into people’s homes. As this trend continues, society will have to grapple with the way it approaches buying products, the implications for regulations (as evident over the debate surrounding 3D printing of guns), and the impact on intellectual property rights.
Lightweight composite materials, formerly the preserve of high-end applications such as aircraft, wind turbines, and high performance cars, will expand into more and more uses. As these applications grow, the light weight and adaptability of these materials will provide scope for other innovations, such as more efficient battery-powered cars.
Polymer products will also increasingly be provided with new functionality, either through clever design of the polymer or marrying polymers with other technologies. For example, “smart tyres” incorporating internet-enabled electronic feedback mechanisms to improve fuel efficiency, safety and longevity will change our driving experience. Cheap and transparent electrically conductive polymers will begin to move from curio to commonplace, as existing materials (such as indiium tin oxide) used in conventional technologies become rarer and more expensive (see World Economic Forum article 5 synthetic materials that will shape the future). We may yet see flexible plastic LED screens displace traditional LED screens, just as LED screens themselves displaced CRT technology.
Polymers will also likely play an increasingly important role in medicine. The development of “smart” polymers which respond to external stimuli, such as pH or other chemicals have applications in targeted drug delivery (see ScienceDirect commentary on Smart polymers for the controlled delivery of drugs). Additionally, synthetic polymers such as PLA, polyglycolic acid (PGA) and polycaprolactone are expected to play an increasingly important role in the production of 3D porous scaffolds to regenerate tissues within the body (see ScienceDirect article Bioactive polymeric scaffolds for tissue engineering).
All the while, consumers and society will continue to push not only for improved performance during a polymer’s lifetime, but also for improved sourcing and disposal of the polymers.
As we mould polymers, so too will new polymers mould our future.