We use products made from plastic every day, but we rarely think about the material and the work that goes into producing it. It's even less likely we think about the research that's underway in the plastics industry and the many innovations currently taking place.

Whether or not we realize it, researchers are coming up with new ways to create and use plastics that could benefit the plastics industry -- as well as society and the environment -- by reducing the costs of consumer goods, making renewable energy more available and reducing plastic waste.

More Affordable, Efficient Solar Cells

The solar energy industry is growing at a rapid rate, and new technologies keep popping up that improve efficiency and reduce costs. There are many different types of solar cell technologies.

One type, known as plastic, organic or polymer photovoltaic solar cells, uses conductive organic polymers or organic molecules to absorb light, transfer the charge and produce electricity.

This type of solar cell is lightweight and affordable, but requires very careful processing so the materials used mix and crystallize properly into thin films.

Researchers from Osaka University, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, recently found a way to produce polymer solar cells without the need for these specialized treatments, while improving its conductivity, by using amorphous polymer blends and adding a component.

Organic solar cells work because light excites the electrons in the polymer. These electrons then move to the positive side of the cell. To complete the circuit, the space left by electrons, referred to as holes, must also move to the positive part of the cell.

The researchers noticed one of their polymers did not transport these holes effectively, so they added a component that improved the hole conductivity.

These advances could simplify the production process and reduce its costs, leading to more widespread adoption of plastic solar cells.

Plant-Based Products that Reduce Waste

One of the major concerns regarding plastic is its disposal. We have produced 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. We've recycled just 9 percent of that waste, and incinerated 12 percent. The remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or in the natural environment, where it takes a long time to degrade.

To help combat these issues, various companies around the world are developing and using plastics made from plant-based materials such as cornstarch, potato starch and cellulose. These alternative plastics degrade much more quickly and don't release toxins into the environment.

Creating plant-based plastics, also known as bioplastics, that function as effectively as oil-based plastic products can be a challenge. A company called Biome Bioplastics is tackling one of those challenges -- creating a bioplastic that can hold hot liquids. The company has developed a coffee cup made entirely of natural materials that can compose in a food waste bin or a paper recycling bin.

Since single-use coffee cups are so common, but often not recyclable, this could have a substantial impact. While the cup isn't available yet, the company says it is in talks with retailers.

More Precise Methods for Producing Polymers

Researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, are developing a way to use sunlight to grow functional synthetic polymers. They're employing photosensitive quantum dots -- semiconducting particles only a few nanometers wide that have optical and electronic properties -- as a catalyst.

This method could reduce the cost of producing polymers by replacing the molecular catalysts and transition metals in use today. The scientists applied light from various sources, including the sun and a lamp, to a solution containing the quantum dots, which led to the creation of free radical atoms and caused the solution's acrylate monomers to link.

The researchers say this method allows for highly controlled polymer growth and could lead to the discovery of new polymers that could have applications in solar energy, bioimaging and magnetoelectronics.

We use plastics for a huge portion of the products we use every day, from household items to car parts to packaging to sporting goods. Plastic has characteristics no other material has, so we likely won't stop using it anytime soon.

The way we use plastics and the kinds of plastic we use, though, are continually evolving. Whether or not most people are aware of it, the plastics industry is always innovating.

Published on: Feb 16, 2018