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Those New Age Plastics


For want of a better name, they’re called plastics. But new age polymers could soon replace every kind of material you can think or even dream of. You could even be wearing them. Imagine about 70 per cent of the jet you fly in made of the miracle plastic polymers. Crazy isn’t it.

When a chemical engineer at a recent conference in Mumbai made a statement that iron and steel and other conventional building materials would be obsolete in the next decade – only to be replaced by new age plastic polymers, not many in the audience made a serious note of what he said. Others probably dismissed it as mere SF gobbledygook. Only a couple of people in the audience nodded in agreement.

Right from semi-conductors, to batteries, to car engines and aeroplane parts, all can be easily and cost-effectively fabricated using these new age materials, which for want of a specific name are called plastics. Yes, they share some properties with conventional plastics and may have molecular formulas like other polymers, but are as durable, heat resistant and possess the tensile strength of hi-grade steel. They can even be used to build bridges or make flexible computer display screens that could be folded like you’d fold a handkerchief and put it into your pocket. And when you want to use the thingamajig, just pop it out, unfold it and it’s ready to go. Well, for now, this may be a wee bit SF, but if developments in plastics’ technology are to be believed and the progress being made is sustained, you could have a folding TV in another two years. Better still, your car would probably weigh almost a fifth of what it currently does because not just the bumper and the dashboard, but even the engine and the body would be made of some `plastic’ material.

Researchers are even experimenting with using these new materials for making locomotive and aero parts which can withstand very high vibrations, besides temperature and pressure extremes without giving way. One of the biggest advantages that these products promise over conventional plastics is the fact that they are biodegradable and can be recycled without losing any of their specific properties. Unlike conventional plastic, which if recycled, loses its shine and strength and becomes brittle – making it unusable for manufacture of new products.

As far as electronics is concerned, polymers are already used to produce ultra-light batteries for cell phones that are stamp-sized but last for several days. Researchers predict that in the next few years polymer batteries will completely phase out the conventional lithium, cadmium or nickel-ammonium batteries, helping make cell phones much lighter – today almost 60 per cent of the weight and volume of a cell phone is its battery. Imagine if that were reduced by 200 per cent, a cell phone built into your wrist watch would work for more than a week without a recharge – or your palmtop could run for two full days with your multimedia running at full blast.

The original article was first published in The Economic Times and can be found online at:

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