The future is still plastics; maybe more than ever

By Catherine

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” the title character got this career advice: just one word…plastics.

It was so long ago, yet a futuristic remake would give the same advice. Plastic keeps evolving, gaining new properties and new uses.

The era of ‘The Graduate’ was a miracle age for plastic,” says Steven Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council. “Where we are in material sciences is another age in breakthroughs.”

Those high-tech composite materials you hear about are plastic reinforced with carbon fiber to combine the benefits of plastics—light weight—with dramatically increased strength.

Count on finding more plastic in vehicles. “Materials that used to be only for race car drivers are going to show up in everybody’s garage,” Mr. Russell says.

Plastics will be a major contributor toward meeting higher fuel economy standards and thus reducing pollution by making cars lighter. Plastics already make up about half of a car’s volume but account for only 10% of its weight.

Imagine if, a few hours after a fender bender, your car has healed itself. Scott R. White, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently published research on the first demonstration of a synthetic, nonliving material—plastic—that is able to regrow and regenerate in response to damage.

Damaged bumper

In the future, plastics would never age because in response to either small-scale or large-scale damage, they would regenerate themselves,” he says. The process doesn’t work if the plastic has exploded or broken to bits.

Regenerating plastic has a vascular system in which about eight different chemical compounds circulate in two isolated networks, similar to blood circulating through the body—in fact, the idea was based on mimicking the body’s healing process.

When damage occurs, those veins break, allowing the two fluid streams to mingle and triggering chemical reactions that lead to regeneration. One reaction creates a gel, so the fluids no longer flow. A slower reaction is hardening, which turns the gel material into a structural plastic, Dr. White says.

The system isn’t expensive, he adds, and the chemicals are not more expensive than plastic itself.

Plastic has advantages over metal including being lighter and resistant to corrosion. The downside of plastic has been that it weakens over its lifetime, and may eventually fail. Ultraviolet rays, for example, can dramatically weaken plastic over time, making it become brittle and flake, Dr. White says. That’s something metals don’t suffer.

With regeneration, “plastic could be immortal as long as you maintain the mechanism by which it regenerates,” he says. The breakthrough would make plastic greener, because “every time you can make something last longer, it means you aren’t throwing it away or replacing it.”

Plastic already has been getting greener, says Mr. Russell of the American Chemistry Council. It’s now possible to recycle more kinds of plastics that weren’t recyclable in the past, from yogurt containers to flexible film like shopping bags.

Plastic also offers green applications in many industries. If all building construction materials now used were plastic—vinyl instead of glass windows, plastic instead of metal pipes, foam insulation—it would save enough energy to power 4.6 million U.S. homes, he says. Plastic is being used in energy-efficient LED light bulbs, which may help bring down their cost.

plastic polymer granules

Stanford University is working on ways to use plastic to improve the ability of solar cells to absorb energy. Bayer MaterialScience, a unit of Germany’s Bayer AG, and Belgium’s Solvay Group are making plastic materials for the Solar Impulse 2 ultralight plane, which aims to fly around the world powered only by solar energy next year. The lithium polymer batteries—made partly of plastic—store enough energy that the plane has been able to fly part of the night in test flights.

If we think about sustainability, lot of people don’t think about plastics,” Mr. Russell says. “But if we think about how a material impacts how we use water or energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plastics help.”

Packaging is a major application for plastics, and one in which the material can make products greener. A little bit of plastic can prevent a lot of food contamination and waste. With active packaging, the wrapper itself helps prevent spoilage. Some are impregnated with antimicrobials, while others prevent loss of bacteria that’s beneficial to our microbiome. Still others include strips that absorb ethylene—which is given off by ripening fruit and vegetables—to keep food fresh longer.

Intelligent packaging may one day communicate information about the food in their refrigerators to consumers, to say which foods are in danger of not being fresh any longer, so those can be eaten first.

Plastic is showing up in some other unusual places. The Bank of England announced last December that the next £5 and £10 banknotes will be printed on a plastic film, rather than the traditional cotton paper. The switch, which will begin in 2016, will make banknotes cleaner, more durable and more difficult to counterfeit.

Plastic is a key component in the explosion in 3-D printing, which promises to change many industries. While 3-D printing has been around for three decades, it has only recently taken off, with applications from medicine to spare and custom parts to molds, patterns and models.

Keep Calm and Innovate Sustainably: 10 Tips for Sustainable Design

By Aurelien

Keep Calm And Innovate SustainablyNowadays, sustainable production and consumption still remain an exception. Consumers demand more sustainable products, yet they often lack information about the real environmental and social impacts of their purchases. The problem for designers and product managers: shifting to sustainable innovation is not an easy path.

According to the European Eco-Design Directive, more than 80% of the environmental impact is determined at the design stage.

Would you like to take the jump to eco-design? This SlideShare presentation will drive you through 10 tips to get started with more sustainable design. So keep calm, and innovate sustainably! ;-)

Wanna see these tips in action on the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform? Watch the video below:

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Parts of this SlideShare presentation were inspired by the SPIN/Leapfrog Project, a joint initiative from TU Delft, the Vietnam Cleaner Production Center (VNCPC), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and Dassault Systèmes. Learn more about the project through the Leapfrog Project blog series.

The Cities of our Future

By Alyssa

Future city

It’s rush hour in the city. People make their way home after a hard day’s work. Driverless cars pass by as cyclists stream along purpose-built lanes, safe from motorized traffic and unpredictable pedestrians.

As the city unwinds into the evening, indoor sensors adjust the ambient temperature and turn lights on; televisions, radios and even baths are operated with a gesture from an armchair.

Outside, sensors monitor atmospheric irritants, ready to alert those at risk should dangerous levels be reached. A computer planning the city’s waste collection receives data about foul-smelling and full bins. Traffic systems constantly check and adjust, ensuring jams and accidents are a thing of the past. Unbeknown to its citizens, every function of the city is silently optimized to make life simple and efficient.

City jungle

This is a common vision imagined for smart cities of the future: efficient, responsive hubs consisting of vast, interconnected technological systems. But can and should technology alone have the power to tackle one the most acute challenges of our time: how a soaring population can live sustainably on Earth.

By 2050, the World Health Organization predicts that 70% of the population, or 6.4 billion people, will be urbanites. Many of these will live in cities that are decades or centuries old, built for vastly smaller populations with very different needs. As these new metropolises gestate and grow, they risk becoming sprawling, inefficient sinks, wasting precious resources such as land, water and energy, and becoming harder to manage logistically.

Now a diverse range of disciplines are stepping up to help solve these challenges, aided by a suite of digital tools that allow scientists and city planners, for example, to see and explore the futures we are creating and their effects on their inhabitants and the planet as a whole.

Ingeborg Rocker is one of those leading this charge.  As the head of the GEOVIA 3DEXPERIENCity project at Dassault Systèmes, which aims to create holistic, virtual models of cities, Rocker believes that to build for the future we need to take a new approach to designing our cities.

small planet

Traditional planning is built on the idea that efficiency is achieved by standardizing every element. Make every road, streetlight, junction and building the same and you drive down costs and make cities easier and quicker to build, expand and repair.   But, much like medicine has come round to the idea that no two humans are alike and therefore need personalized care, Rocker believes that no two cities can be considered the same. Instead, she says that cities need to be viewed and planned as living entities, where every element and every citizen is part of a whole. Changes – no matter how small – cannot be made without examining their impact on the entire organism and its environment.

Studies of the interaction between people and systems have revealed patterns that are anything but standard,” says Rocker, who is also an associate professor of architecture at Harvard University. “If we analyze the patterns and interactions between people and systems – such as transport and waste management – we can develop cities that are still robust while also being highly efficient and sustainable – but in new terms.”

This approach is at the cutting edge of architecture and could lead to a reimagining of the discipline, focused not just on the resulting structure but also the impact a building will have on the planet’s resources. New technology like that in the 3DEXPERIENCity project allow urban planners to digitally study and test ideas, empowering them to constantly consider the impact urbanization has not just within the invisible boundaries of their city, but also on the entire planet and its resources.

“Even the most remote regions of the Earth are affected by urban lifestyles. In the name of sustainability, we must seek new ways to limit the impact urban growth has on our entire geosphere,” says Rocker.

green wall

Discover more about new ways we can develop our cities!  The video below not only gives a glimpse into new technology that city planners can leverage, but tells an interesting story about a project MIT’s SENSEable City Lab ran to track the path and impact of trash across the US.

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You can also read more about in an article that also looks at ideas like Hollywood’s role in envisioning the future.

NOTE: The video and article were first published as an Advertisement Feature on bbc.com running from 27th June 2014 to 5th September 2014, and was created by the BBC Advertising Commercial Production team in partnership with Dassault Systèmes.



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