When necessity meets innovation
Waste Management Expo 2020 MAR 12&13 BIEC, Bengaluru, India

When necessity meets innovation

9:57 AM, 10th February 2017
A representative image of polymers. (File photo)

The world is witnessing an urgent need to find an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to plastic, glass, paper, metal and various other materials. New age polymers fit the bill just right. Various industries are making the most of the strength, flexibility and durability that this material offers. 

By Debarati Das

Automotive parts, packaging, medical transplants and almost every industry today, is exploring the possibilities that polymer offers. While being lighter, high-strength, flexible and durable, the polymer also is a sustainable alternative to various materials which are traditionally made from natural resources that are already fast exhausting. 

Further, the unstable petroleum prices and the increasing awareness about the grave environmental predicament are forcing the industry to use polymers as an ecological alternative and thus, strengthening industrial R&D to come up with a better class of polymers. 

According to Lucintel’s report, the global polymer industry is expected to witness a growth with a CAGR of 3.9 percent over 2015-2020. Amidst increasing industrialisation, need for fuel efficient, low-weight automobiles, booming construction and infrastructural activities in the emerging markets, polymers is fast becoming the choice of the industry. The other end-user markets that are witnessing equivalent growth in polymer usage are packaging, telecommunication and medical applications. 

“As the trend toward composite usage continues, we are prepared to respond with the lightweight solutions available in our ROHACELL® range of polymethacrylimide foam products. Whether it is an aeroplane, a car, a ship, a wind turbine blade, an electronic device or even a hockey stick – all can benefit from less overall weight,” noted Dr Andreas Hoff, vice president, performance foams, resource efficiency segment, Evonik.

Among the various types of polymers available in the market, thermoplastics segment is expected to witness the highest growth over the next five years. According to MarketsandMarkets research, the thermoplastic elastomers market is expected to reach $27.8 billion by 2020. The market will by far be driven by the growing automotive application. The use of polyolefin in automotive and packaging will be driving the demand of the thermoplastics. With rapidly growing industrial and automotive segment, Asia-Pacific will be the fastest-growing market in the near future.

Major growth spurts will be expected from India, China, and Indonesia where high investments from global manufacturers in capacity expansion in these regions will take place. North America will be the second-largest market which will grow due to the recovering automotive industry. In the automotive industry, thermoplastic elastomers are fast becoming a replacement for natural and synthetic rubber by substituting rubber and PVC in various applications. 

Trends in polymers

Amidst various research and development activities taking place to find a better-suited polymer, some of the key trends witnessed in this segment are as follows: 

Nanopolymers: According to reports, the polymer nanocomposites market is expected to reach $5,100 million by 2020. A nanocomposite is a material designed for enhanced performance in any number of unique applications through improvement in structural, functional or cosmetic properties. These polymer nanocomposites are widely being used in packaging, automotive, aerospace & defence, electronics & semiconductor, energy, construction etc.

On product type basis, nanocomposites can be a carbon nanotube, metal oxide, nanofiber, nano-clay, graphene etc. Nanoclay and carbon nanotubes are the key nano-elements used in polymer nanocomposite materials. Plastic nanoclay composite materials are majorly used in packaging and automotive parts, like automotive body panels and under-hood components. In packaging, nanocomposites decrease the permeation rate of gases and moisture vapour into plastic by creating a tortuous path. The unique properties of polymer nanocomposites have made them an attractive alternative in the packaging industry making packaging industry the major end user market for nanocomposites industry. Growing demand of nanocomposites from emerging regions of the world is also leveraging the growth of polymer nanocomposites market.

Smart polymers: Smart polymers also called stimulus-responsive polymers are high-performance polymers that change according to the environment they are in. These polymers respond in a dramatic way to very slight changes in their environment such as temperature, pH, light, magnetic or electric field, ionic factors, biological molecules etc. Scientists are constantly trying to mimic the properties of natural polymers into man-made polymeric substances. These synthetic polymers are increasingly being used in a variety of applications especially related to biotechnology and biomedicine.

One of the major challenges of medical science has been to deliver drugs to a particular site in the body without having them first degrade in the highly acidic stomach environment and without having any adverse effects on other healthy organs, bone or tissues of the body.

The smart polymeric materials are chemically formulated to sense specific environmental changes in biological systems and adjust in a predictable manner, making them useful tools for targeted drug delivery and other metabolic control mechanisms.

According to forecast by Reports and Reports, the global smart polymers market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 19.98 percent during the period 2016-2020. While the evolution of drug delivery system will rule the smart polymer industry, significant work is also happening in the automotive industry with shape memory polymer. These polymers self-heal in the case of damages, can be designed to change appearance or colour and can also be used in sensors in safety systems. 

The Americas will be the most burgeoning region in the smart polymers market encompassing 45 percent of the overall market revenue by 2020.

Bio-based polymers: One of the major concerns today is the enormous task to undo the damage that plastic has done to the environment. The industry is working towards finding a safer and eco-friendly alternative. Bio-based polymers are attracting increased attention not just due to the environmental concerns but also the awareness of the fast depleting global petroleum resources. 

Unlike synthetic plastics that are resistant to degradation and remain in the environment for a long time, bio-plastics are bio-based and biodegradable with almost similar properties to synthetic plastics. Bioplastics are made from a variety of sources like polysaccharides, lipids and also proteins. Soy protein, wheat gluten, rice and egg albumin are increasingly being used in bioplastic production. 

This is a novel way to reduce the environmental pollution and decrease the dependency on the fast depleting petroleum availability. “Delivering sustainable packaging solutions to address challenges of today while inspiring applications of tomorrow is what drives Dow,” said Mark Saurin, commercial vice president, packaging and speciality plastics, Asia Pacific, Dow. 

Applications of biodegradable polymers are also fast rising and is increasingly being tailored to suit the requirements and specifications of different sectors such as agriculture, automotive, medicine, controlled drug release, packaging etc.

“We expect the global demand for biodegradable polymers to continue to grow in the coming years,” explained Paul Spencer, head of biomaterials, healthcare business line, Evonik. “With this in mind, we are currently investing to increase the capacity of our production facilities in order to serve our global customer base.” Evonik recently created additional capacity for the production of its biodegradable polymers, RESOMER® and RESOMER® SELECT. This poly-lactic-glycolic-acid (PLGA) copolymers are primarily used to manufacture bioresorbable medical devices and controlled-release formulations for parenteral drug delivery.

The polymer is undoubtedly the future avatar of plastic requirements of the world. With more and more research happening across the globe to explore the unexplored potentials of polymers, the industry is simply waiting to make the planet a greener place.

© Chemical Today Magazine

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