Plastics made from sustainable resources, or plants, are at a tipping point, according to several speakers at special session at the annual technical conference (Antec) of the Society of Plastics Engineers in Milwaukee, WI. According to one research study cited, 40 percent of bioplastics will be used in durable applications in 2011, compared to just 2 per cent today. In the United States, in particular, plastics made from crops, usually corn, are mostly targeted for disposable packaging. As I’ve blogged before, that’s a joke since there are virtually no composting facilities that could handle the biodegradable packaging. The argument works OK for plastic bags that are thrown in the ocean or beside highways. But that’s hardly a reason to develop a new industry. Speakers at the SPE Antec, however, made the point that the argument is shifting from a solid waste viewpoint to a carbon footprint orientation. As a result, some experts feel demand will grow for “bioplastics” because of its potentially favorable position in the global warming debate. Japan has a law requiring greater use of bioplastics over the years, and Toyota among others has embraced the goals. The case is gaining a little strength as oil prices soar. It’s still a tough row to hoe, however. One reason is that bioplastics lack adequate mechanical properties for durable applications, such as cars. Toyota is blending bioplastic with oil-based plastic to boost properties. The other issue is that bioplastic will be significantly more expensive than oil-based plastic, even with sky-high oil prices. Efforts in the past to develop alternates have always collapsed when oil prices dropped. The other big obstacle is the feedstock problem. Use of corn in the United States has hiked food prices. At the Antec, a few experts argued that the real solution will be a switch to biomass that has no food value.
To give engineers a better idea of the range of resins and polymers available as alternatives to other materials, this Technology Roundup presents several articles on engineering plastics that can do the job.
The first photos made with a 3D-printed telescope are here and they're not as fuzzy as you might expect. A team from the University of Sheffield beat NASA to the goal. The photos of the Moon were made with a reflecting telescope that cost the research team £100 to make (about $161 US).
A tiny humanoid robot has safely piloted a small plane all the way from cold start to takeoff, landing and coming to a full stop on the plane's designated runway. Yes, it happened in a pilot training simulation -- but the research team isn't far away from doing it in the real world.
Some in the US have welcomed 3D printing for boosting local economies and bringing some offshored manufacturing back onshore. Meanwhile, China is wielding its power of numbers, and its very different relationships between government, education, and industry, to kickstart a homegrown industry.
You can find out practically everything you need to know about engineering plastics as alternatives to other materials at the 2014 IAPD Plastics Expo. Admission is free for engineers, designers, specifiers, and OEMs, as well as students and faculty.
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