Materials: Plastics

The world seems to be going poly ga-ga over plastics. These man-made materials are already ubiquitous in packaging and containers--even cans often have polymer linings, as do the caps and lids on glass bottles and jars. The "wood" used for TV cabinets and furniture is frequently harvested from barrels of oil, not forests. Polymer threads are a staple in clothes and fabrics. And carmakers long ago began replacing metal bumpers with plastics. All told, last year's production of synthetic raw materials, called resins, seems sure to top the 100-billion-pound mark. At the end of October, production was up 8% from 1999, when 97.5 billion pounds spewed from resin factories. Shampoo bottles, potato-chip bags, "jewel boxes" for compact disks, and other types of packaging accounted for a quarter of the total.

Still, that's just a taste of what's coming. The plastics industry is now gearing up to grab electronics business from silicon--and even steal some thunder from steel and concrete in heavy construction jobs, like bridges. And established synthetics will get a nanotechnology makeover to boost their strength.

TINY KEYBOARD. Plastics may never rival silicon for high-speed circuits such as microprocessors. Compared with silicon, the best conductive polymers transmit electrical signals at a snail's pace. But for many less-demanding jobs, like electronic tags, plastics are just the ticket. Ditto for flexible displays and keyboards. In a few years, business travelers will be able to kiss luggable laptops goodbye. Instead, managers will sport Lilliputian computers with full-size displays and keyboards that fold up to fit in a shirt pocket. ElectroTextiles Co., a British startup, has already developed a fabric keyboard that rolls up. In December, researchers from England's Cambridge University and Epson Cambridge Laboratory described how they used an inkjet printer to create a trail-blazing all-polymer transistor.

For the small screens on handheld gadgets and cell phones, and for flexible fold-up displays, many scientists are betting on organic light-emitting diodes. OLED technology is being championed by DuPont (DD), IBM (IBM), Eastman Kodak (EK), Philips (PHG), and Sanyo (SANYY), among others. Market researcher Stanford Resources Inc. predicts that sales of OLED displays will take off in 2001 and soar to $714 million in 2005, up from a mere $3 million in 1999.

At the opposite extreme, fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites are slowly making headway in infrastructure construction. Construction is already the No. 2 market for plastics, with water pipes and other building products chewing up 19 billion pounds of resin in 1999. But now, Ohio plans to upgrade 100 bridges with FRP roadbeds. In resurfacing just one bridge in Dayton last summer, 1 million pounds of FRP materials were used. FRP advocates predict that advanced composites will also replace supporting structures. So bridges could gobble huge amounts of plastics, since 500,000 bridges on federal highways are due for repair or replacement, according to Richard Weyers, a bridge expert at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

Meanwhile, nanotechnology promises a rebirth for many plastics. Researchers are hatching recipes that produce long polymer chains through molecule-by-molecule self-assembly. This can radically alter the properties of familiar plastics. Last March, materials scientists at Northwestern University unveiled a technique that creates polystyrene from orderly strands of molecules that resemble a DNA helix. Because the polymer chains in ordinary polystyrene are a spaghetti-like jumble, the plastic is brittle--CD jewel boxes being a prime example. Northwestern's parallel-polymer version features unprecedented toughness.

All told, the current outlook for plastics seems at least as bright as it was in 1967, when The Graduate launched actor Dustin Hoffman's career and made "plastics" the punch line of the year. Today's high prices for oil and natural gas will no doubt dampen growth a bit in 2001, but the world around us seems destined to become increasingly polymerized.

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