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IMRE's polymer can help save costs and resources in making devices like organic solar cells and next generation printed circuits on plastics <i>(Image source: A*STAR IMRE Singapore)</i>
IMRE's polymer can help save costs and resources in making devices like organic solar cells and next generation printed circuits on plastics (Image source: A*STAR IMRE Singapore)
Many of us have a love hate relationship with plastics. So, as you sit back and look in front of you, then around you, count how many plastic objects you see. "It's a plastic world" no longer applies only to credit cards. We use plastics in an enormous and expanding range of products, from paper clips to the recently retired space shuttle. Yes, we despise plastics, which has displaced many traditional materials, such as metal, wood, stone, glass, leather, porcelain and ceramic. We ridicule plastics for not being the real thing, scorn plastics as harmful to our environment and blame plastics for driving up the cost of petroleum. Yet, it hasn't stopped us from waiting in those insane all-nighter lines at Apple stores to be the first to get an iPad, a major culprit that contains numerous components made from what else - plastics.

Plastics over time

In the early days, plastics was produced using natural and synthetic materials of different forms, attributes and appearances. These materials are non-degradable, which cannot be decomposed and pollutes our environment. The burning of plastic materials produces toxic gas - the prime cause of many severe health hazards. Over time, more and more manufacturers adopted the development of plastics on the basis of organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen and other elements.

At the same time as the plastics industry advance in new technologies, so does manifesting a new industry consensus in addressing environmental issues. The need to foster this concept is now widely embraced by plastics makers as concerned citizens and responsible professionals. Successful environmental solutions involve reducing waste and increasing efficiency by creating new businesses opportunities. The bottom line is that sustainability and profitability should go hand in hand.

The plastics industry has seen a number of breakthrough discoveries this year, including:

1) controlled-life plastic technology that speeds up the biodegradation process by bio-assimilated into the environment;

2) a new transparent coating made from a combination of clay and polymers that can be applied to plastic packaging materials;

3) a new method to produce thermoplastic from chicken feathers that is substantially stronger, more resistant to tearing and durable enough to survive when wet than those made by corn or soy.

All of these are wonderful but probably years away from mass production, and how will these be able to facilitate alternative energy?

From pollutant to alternative energy

Today, alternative energy has become a significant part of the total global energy production. Its importance is constantly increasing for the plastics industry, which in turn contributes a great deal in research and innovation. While much of it involves recycling, developing greener plastics is equally important.

In a report, "Wind Turbine Development: Location of Manufacturing Activity", there were 8,174 companies throughout all 50 states in the US with the ability to produce plastics for manufacturing of turbine parts for the wind turbine market.

Across the board in all industries, numerous components are designed as plastic parts and it makes perfect sense. Plastics are durable, light, inexpensive and cost-effective to mass production. But rather than digging deeper into what we know as plastic parts supplies, let's explore the cutting edge technology of solar energy, one of the most notable alternative energy and plastics' importance in this technology.

Generating electricity from the sun
Solar Energy

It is common knowledge that solar energy requires setting up an array of solar panels to absorb and store energy from the sun. Seen most commonly on rooftops, the panels are packaged in modules made of glass and aluminum and are rigid and heavy. For years, the high cost of crystalline silicon, the main material used in solar cells, has relegated the technology to powering satellites, high-tech buildings and communications towers beyond the reach of the everyday person.

The latest wave or second generation of solar technology include polymer plastics and what are called light-guided solar optics that promise far lower manufacturing costs and a faster return on investment. Although polymer plastic solar cells is still a novel technology (not to be confused with "thin film" solar cells, which has yet become mainstream solar products due to their lower efficiency and corresponding larger area consumption per watt production), it can be processed from solution, and therefore, the possibility of a simple roll-to-roll printing process does lead to inexpensive, large scale production.

Ultimately, plastic solar panels will be as thin as a strand of human hair and can be sprayed or rolled onto a surface much like paint or wallpaper, or even woven into fabric. Prototype solar cells have been made business-card-sized and researchers have suggested the material could be incorporated into clothing and used to recharge wireless devices like cell phones.

Turning novelty into reality are two recent breakthroughs announcements. Published on July 1, by the journal Physical Review Letters, Lehigh University Physicists, Professor Ivan Biaggio and Pavel Irkhin, a Ph.D. candidate, have developed an imaging technique that makes it possible to directly observe light-emitting excitons as they diffuse in a new material that is being explored for its extraordinary electronic properties. After they are created in plastic solar cells, excitons diffuse toward specially designed interfaces where they drive electrons into an external circuit, creating the flow of electrons we know as electric current. This diffusion process is one of the technical challenges limiting the efficiency of plastic solar cells. Professor Biaggio said, "Organics have lots of unexplored potential and the very efficient exciton diffusion that we have observed in rubrene may build the basis for new ideas and technologies towards the development of ever more efficient and plastic solar cells."

On August 16 this year, physicists and scientists from Singapore's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) announced the development of a single polymer that can be used in both new-age plastic electronics as well as plastic solar cells. This could indicate greater cost-savings and open up new design options for electronic and solar cell companies. According to Professor Andy Hor, Executive Director of IMRE, "This breakthrough will help speed up the development of plastic electronics and organic solar cells, and make them more readily available in the marketplace."

These developments also add another component important to the success of plastic solar cells - mobility. For example, laptops can be recharged in briefcases or backpacks, solders instead of lugging around a 30-pound battery in combat could be replaced with a one-pound flexible solar cell. University of Alberta in Canada Professor Jillian Buriak and her team is working on solutions on mass producing plastic-based solar cells and hope that solar cells will be commercially viable as early as 2015 summed it up the best, "If you can bring down the cost of solar, of electricity generated by solar so it competes with coal, then you've got a winner," "Right now, silicon can't do it. It's just too expensive to make."
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