Plastics are often associated with convenience, easy disposal, and permanence, conjuring images of everyday items like garbage bags and soda bottles — as well as landfills and coastlines littered with trash. Plastic’s reputation has never been more complicated.
However, plastic materials play a critical role in some of the most sophisticated technologies being used today, and are expected help shape future advancements.
Common Applications for Plastics in High Tech Applications
Below are just a few of the ways plastics are being utilized for high tech applications.
Plastic Solar Cells or Organic Polymer Solar Cells
Although silicon currently reigns supreme as the king of photovoltaic cells, more and more research is being dedicated to plastic solar cells. Plastic solar cells, which are constructed using conductive organic polymers, are not only flexible and lightweight, but also cheaper to produce than their silicon counterparts.
However, silicon solar cells have proven to be the most efficient choice, with efficiency being measured by how much sunlight a solar panel can convert into electricity. In fact, in June 2018, Oxford PV™ – The Perovskite Company™ reported that their perovskite-silicon solar cell could achieve 27.3% conversion efficiency. By comparison, organic polymer solar cells can only achieve about half of that.
Still, plastic solar cells have massive potential and appeal, specifically because they could be used in a multitude of high tech applications, including wearable technologies. Plus, because of its flexible nature, plastic solar cells could be used in a huge range of applications, from apparel to roofs to mobile phone chargers.
In early 2018, researchers at Osaka University in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research published their design for a new type of polymer with improved conductivity. The research, originally published in Advanced Energy Materials, resulted in a solar cell that was able to convert sunlight into energy far more efficiently than any of its predecessors.
Nanotechnology and Plastics
Because of its potential to alter material structures at the atomic or molecular level, nanotechnology is one of the most buzzworthy fields of study to emerge from modern science. Scientists who specialize in this area believe that nanotechnology will inevitably impact nearly every industry, including the medical, food safety, and information technology sectors.
Nanotechnology can also be used to create highly advanced plastics and composites — ones with enhanced strength, heat or UV resistance, electrical conductivity, or any other desired trait. One of the most notable instances of plastic nanotechnology use involves the construction of plastic nanotubes for the conduction of electricity. These tubes are as conductive as copper but are far more flexible, lightweight, and durable.
Nanotechnology plastics are expected to manifest in a variety of different materials, including films, fibers, adhesives, caulks, sealants, and coatings, all of which could be designed with a specific “smart” function. And, because plastic can be formulated into a flexible form, nanotech plastics are expected to play a significant role in the creation of flexible consumer electronics.
Smart plastics refer to a type of polymer that is capable of reacting and adapting to environmental stimuli. These materials are constructed with the intention of being activated by a specific triggering catalyst, such as the presence of heat or water. Once exposed to the catalyst, the material then changes itself in accordance with a preprogrammed design.
When used in conjunction with additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, these smart plastics become critical components in an emerging manufacturing process known as 4D printing. Once “printed,” these objects can assemble themselves into the intended structure. Common applications are found in the transformable architecture, smart apparel, and medical spheres.
The Future of Plastic
Although plastic has earned a bad reputation in recent years, these synthetic materials still have enormous value for a wide range of industries and applications. Often a very economical option, many plastics offer highly desirable characteristics that other materials simply cannot deliver — especially when it comes to high tech applications.
This article was originally written by Katrina C. Arabe in September 2004 and was updated by Kristin Manganello in March 2019.
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