Sunday, July 23, 2006

The future of plastics

There is a famous scene in the classic movie The Graduate in which Dustin Hoffman's character is offered one word of career advice: "plastics." The field of plastics remains huge and will continue to be a huge part of our lives for many decades to come. But... but... the big challenge facing scientists and engineers and planners is how to redesign plastics and production processes so that plastics and related materials are not so heavily dependent on non-renewable fossil resources, particularly petroleum (crude oil) and natural gas. Plastics have been made from renewable materials in the past, but it turned out that petrochemicals had a lot of benefits as a feedstock. That needs to change, regardless of whether your reasoning is based on high oil prices, a belief in "Peak Oil", or simply a concern that we are overly dependent on the volatile Middle East. How many of us give even a second thought to tossing a plastic fork or Styrofoam box or plastic wrapper or plastic bag in the trash? But the simple fact is that every such act only adds to the future demand for production of crude oil and natural gas.

Nanotechnology also has potential for the reengineering of renewable natural materials into replacements for the plastics that we use (and overuse) today.

So, if you know anybody looking for a bright career future or who has the potential to be the kind of brilliant inventor who could kickstart a new billion-dollar industry, recycle that old advice given to "Ben" in The Graduate: "Plastics", but expand it into "reengineering of renewable natural materials as feedstocks for production of plastics".

Oh, and if you're curious about the kind of processes which could be involved, I'd offer one word: algae.There are plenty of other avenues of pursuit, but bio-engineering of plastic materials has much promise.

And if you'd like to acquire the DVD for this classic film:

Note: I do get a tiny commission if you purchase by clicking on the Amazon link (either the picture ad or the movie name in my text.

-- Jack Krupansky

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