Spotlight on

Polymers

Following their invention at the start of the last century, synthetic polymers have established themselves as the most versatile and adaptable material of the modern era.  Our appetite for them is insatiable, with over 300 million tons of synthetic polymers produced each year.  Despite this ubiquity, polymers continue to be stretched in all directions, with innovations leading to new practical applications and higher performance levels.

In addition to innovations in polymer compounds themselves, many of the most interesting and exciting new developments see polymers being used in composite materials.  In such materials the polymer acts as a matrix for a filler material, with the combination leading to improvements in properties such as strength, wear-resistance, and electrical or thermal conductivity.  These materials have already found widespread use in a number of high-end applications, for example in the aerospace industry, and it is hoped and expected that innovations will allow their spread into more everyday use in the future.

A trend cutting across the entire polymer field at the moment is the push towards more environmentally-friendly technology, considering not only what a polymer can do for us now, but the “before” and “after” – the so-called Circular Economy, a topic we've discussed in our recent blogs Circular Economy: The solution to plastic pollution? and Circular Economy: New technologies rise to the challenge.  Society’s focus on this issue is providing a growing commercial incentive for innovators to develop new bioplastics (sourced from biomass, instead of petroleum), and new solutions that do not pollute the environment after use, either through being recycled into new products or broken down through, for example, biodegradation. 

Read our Blogs

Mewburn Ellis is delighted to partner with Oxfordshire Greentech on the Climate Solutions Conference

Mewburn Ellis is delighted to partner with Oxfordshire Greentech on the Climate Solutions Conference

by Eleanor Maciver

Mewburn Ellis is delighted to partner with Oxfordshire Greentech on the Climate Solutions Conference on the 13 March at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Sustainable shoes: Fossil Fuels are so last year!

Sustainable shoes: Fossil Fuels are so last year!

by Rebecca Blundell

It is estimated that 24 billion pairs of shoes are made every year. Many of these will contain materials derived from fossil fuels. That foamy-looking sole on your running shoes? That’s likely ...

Hydrogels in sustainable agriculture

Hydrogels in sustainable agriculture

by Sarah Harvey

As we move into 2024, the agricultural sector is being driven by the urgent need to address global challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and the demand to feeding a growing global ...

Plastic Packaging Pollution: Kelp is on the Way!

Plastic Packaging Pollution: Kelp is on the Way!

by Thomas Lonsdale

Plastic packaging materials have revolutionised modern life. They have several important properties which make them useful for protecting, storing, and transporting commercially valuable items, such ...

The wonderful potential of waxworm saliva

The wonderful potential of waxworm saliva

by Simon Kiddle

Enzymes are able to break up plastic, opening the way for rapid recycling.

The polymathic Professor Michael Shaver

The polymathic Professor Michael Shaver

by Eleanor Maciver

The maverick scientist leads the SMI Hub in Manchester. He’s bringing together environmentalists, economists and social thinkers to create a truly original approach to sustainability.

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The Circular Plastics Economy

To date around 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced, largely based on chemicals obtained from petroleum sources.  An estimated 79% of this has ending up in landfill or the natural environment. With most plastics taking decades or even centuries to decompose, the stark reality is that these materials will be with us far into the future.  Increasing consumer awareness of this problem has led to a desire for “greener” alternatives which retain properties comparable to polymers formed from virgin materials. In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in the development and use of polymer derived from biomass – so-called “biopolymers”.  Major companies are making commitments to move entirely to bio-sourced plastics. For example, the race is on amongst beverage manufacturers to “out-green” one another in terms of the plastics used with their bottles, either through sourcing the components of their conventional plastics from bioresources (as in Coca-Cola’s plantbottle) or through reaching for entirely new materials such as polyethylenefurandicarboxylate.  Other manufacturers are doing away with conventional bottles altogether, as discussed in Consumable consumables:the edible water bottle.

Interest is also keenly focused on what happens to plastics at the end of a product’s useful life.  A range of options are being explored.

Several companies are committing to biodegradable materials, such as replacing polyethylene with bio-derived, biodedgradable polylactic acid (PLA).  For example, as set out in Coffee capsules:greener grounds, coffee manufacturer Lavazza have recently committed to making all of their coffee pods from compostable materials.

In many instances, however, it is useful to recycle plastics instead of simply allowing them to compost.

The traditional approach to recycling polymers is so-called mechanical recycling, in which plastic is ground down and melted, to be reformed into new products.  Such processes can result in degradation of the polymers, leading to downgrading of performance and potentially “down-cycling” of the polymer for use in less demanding applications.  Therefore, as detailed in our blog Circular Economy: New technologies rise to the challenge, innovators are identifying clever ways to reduce the level of degradation during such processes.

Another approach is chemical recycling, in which polymers are broken down into their constituent chemical units, to be used as the feedstock for making new polymers, or for some other purpose (such as fuel).  As discussed in our recent blog Circular Economy: New technologies rise to the challenge, exciting recent chemical recycling developments are opening up the possibility of commercial-scale recycling of traditional plastics, including technologies based on the use of plastic-hungry bugs (see A Taste for Waste – Plastic Recycling with Enzymes).  Other innovators are seeking to develop entirely new polymer types suited to chemical recycling, as discussed in our blog Plastics recycling: polymers unzipped.

Open pages of Green IP Report

Green IP Report

Patents are both a driver and a barometer of innovation

Our report examines the role of patents in making innovative ‘green’ technologies into a reality as well as how the patent landscape can be used to identify opportunities for partnering, collaboration and investment.

We share our enthusiasm and admiration for commercially-focused innovation across a diverse range of technologies, from repurposing carbon dioxide to make protein-rich foods, to the multi-faceted approach to a circular plastics economy. We also discuss the tantalising prospect of AI-mediated renewable energy supply, and the harnessing of battery tech from the EV boom to drive energy efficiency in consumer devices. This report reflects our passion for technology solutions that tackle our shared global challenge.

Download the Report

Forward-looking for Polymers

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.  Find out more about our expertise in the polymer space.

Forward Magazines Overlapping 8

Mewburn Ellis

FORWARD MAGAZINE

Mewburn Ellis Forward is a biannual publication that celebrates the best of innovation and exploration. Through its pages we hope to inform and entertain, but also to encourage discussion about the most compelling developments taking place in the scientific and entrepreneurial world. Along the way, we’ll engage with the IP challenges that international organisations face every day.