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Panel discusses the future of plastics

By: Frank Esposito

October 28, 2013

DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — A panel assembled by styrenics maker Styrolution explored the future of plastics at K 2013.

The panel met Oct. 17 at a press event moderated by award-winning science journalist Robert Matthews.

Emerging technologies will allow Styrolution and other resin makers to control resin performance in ways previously not possible, including self-assembly of nanostructures, said Hans-Werner Schmidt, macromolecular chemistry department head at the University of Bayreuth in Bayreuth, Germany.

Resin makers "have the opportunity to affect materials in a unique way — to control to the nanometer scale," he added. "They can improve their plastic materials to find specialized applications."

Styrenics can be especially helpful in this regard because of their ability to provide a variety of performances — ranging from flexible to hard — and because of their "benign processing behavior," said Norbert Niessner, global research and development head for Frankfurt-based Styrolution.

Eckart Herrmann, interior material technology head for automaker Volkswagen AG, declared that "the plastics revolution already has overtaken cars."

"Compare the '69 Beetle to the current Golf," he said. "In the Beetle, you were looking at sheet metal when you were inside. Now when you're inside the Golf, you see only plastics."

Future application trends could lead to cars with fewer buttons and knobs and more touch interfaces, Herrmann added. Niessner described "cool-touch" technology that Styrolution is working on. The heat-transfer technology could give plastic parts the feel of metal.

Niessner listed improved weather-resistant plastics for fencing and decking and an increased role for design as "more of a selling point" as other future directions for the market. Three-dimentional printing also could play a role in advancing technology for plastics, according to Schmidt.

Patricia Vangheluwe, consumer and environment affairs director for the Brussels, Belgium-based PlasticsEurope trade group, cited the value of advanced plastics in supplying fresh water and improving transportation as areas where plastics can have a future impact.

"We in the industry should talk about the benefit of plastics to life and not so much about plastic imitating other materials," she said.