The production of plastics - new tendencies of the 21st century


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The 21st century is to pose a lot of challenges for humanity. The imminent depletion of the deposits of crude oil (petroleum) is one of them. It is the major raw material used for the manufacture of polymers, including the so-called "Big Six" category (polyethylene of high and low density, polypropylene, PVC, polystyrene and polyester). In the nearest future, the manufacturers of plastics will be forced to search for other raw materials, preferably - renewable ones. However, a transition to the use of raw materials of this kind may turn out to be something more than merely a simple replacement - in the latest article published in "Nature Reviews Chemistry", the author predicts that the commercialisation of bioplastics will proceed along the two paths, each to offer its distinctive opportunities and threats.

The first one assumes the use of renewable chemicals as drop-in replacements of petroleum-derived materials which already have a stable dedicated market existing for them. Both creation and adaptation of such materials to the existing industrial installations will be very difficult to proceed with, while even the slightest changes with regard to their original counterparts may make their application impossible. Any direct and drop-in replacement would be hailed "a Holy Grail" for being indistinguishable from currently used materials, due to which it would not be necessary to change existing manufacturing procedures. There already exists an example - namely: the monomer ethylene, created through the dehydration of ethanol which, in turn, is acquired through the fermentation of sugar. The renewable ethylene is practically indistinguishable from the petroleum-derived one.

The second path relies on the identification of those fields of application where new materials could have increased chances of successful competition against the old ones. However, the process both requires time and huge investment expenditure. The cases of when a new material becomes a global hit within a single night are extremely rare and a market for them typically tends to build up gradually - in a "customer by customer" manner.

Both paths have their pros and cons, each one being difficult and arduous to follow. It is anticipated that any prospective changes in the field would rather take on the shape of an evolution than revolution, while they are still unavoidable.

Source: Nature Reviews Chemistry
Image credits: mrpuen
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