The Plastics Revolution: How Chemists are Pushing Polymers to New Limits

From Scientific American:

Eventually, laboratory data proved that he was right. He won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work, and synthetic polymers are now ubiquitous: last year, the world produced about 300 million tonnes of them. The molecular chains that Staudinger hypothesized have entered almost every aspect of modern life, from clothes, paint and packaging to drug delivery, 3D printing and self-healing materials. Polymer-based composites even make up half the weight of Boeing’s most recent passenger aeroplane, the 787 Dreamliner.

So where will polymers go next? Some answers will come this week, when a once-per-decade workshop organized by the US National Science Foundation attempts to survey which new areas are emerging.

“The general trend—still continuing—is the expansion of polymers into applications that have not been traditionally theirs,” says Tim Lodge, a polymer chemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and editor of the journal Macromolecules. That expansion has been driven by advances in every aspect of polymer science, he says. Researchers have developed new methods to synthesize and analyse molecules, improved theoretical models and created mimics of polymers found in nature. At the same time, says Lodge, attitudes to the science have changed. No longer do universities dismiss polymer science as too dirty, practical and industrial for academia. “Just about every chemistry department has someone doing polymer stuff now,” he says, and frontier work on polymers is increasingly interdisciplinary.

It will need to be. Researchers have a growing toolbox of techniques with which to craft the chemical architecture of polymer strands, but they are often unable to predict whether the resulting compound will have the particular properties needed for, say, a membrane or a drug-delivery system. Meeting that challenge will demand a much deeper understanding of how the chemical structure of a polymer determines its physical properties, at every scale from nanometres to metres.

Polymers …

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