The polymer industry is at a tipping point.
Depleting fossil fuels, a growing sensitivity to industry's role in climate change, and rising raw material prices combined with a state still looking to recapture the economic power it had during its industrial revolution has Ohio's leaders and polymer industry officials working together to take advantage.
``This is a transformational moment,'' Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher told about 175 state legislative and polymer industry officials June 5 at the biannual Ohio Legislative Luncheon, sponsored by the industry group PolymerOhio Inc.
``This is a chance to move Ohio to the head of the class.''
Years from now, when people look back on the polymer industry, this time in history will be looked upon as the time when the industry leaped forward, several speakers said.
Ohio has an opportunity to be the leader of the technological leap, they said.
Calling it a ``global revolution,'' Stephen Myers, executive director of the Ohio Bioproducts Innovation Center said it is ``critical that Ohio be a leader in this.''
Demand for materials and chemical polymers will double during the next 40 years. Half of that growth will be in renewable materials, he said, noting that advanced energies, alternative fuel systems and advanced materials all will be interconnected.
Ohio's agricultural operations generated $79.6 billion in 2006. The state's chemical polymer and materials output netted $49 billion, Myers said.
Additionally, the state is recognized for being a leader in the research and development of polymer technologies at the academic level, with several Ohio universities participating.
``We have very strong polymer and agricultural industries in place today,'' he said. ``We're at a very important time in history and we need to work together to take advantage of these opportunities.''
Joseph Jacomet, program director for PolymerOhio, concurred.
``Fifty percent of materials coming from renewables - that's going to happen,'' Jacomet said. ``A perfect storm seems to be coming together.''
The men talked about several new technologies stemming from Ohio's pool of resources, including advancements in biomaterials, photonic and flexible polymers and alternative energy sources.
Flexible polymers will change the way the world receives information. There is a scene in the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report where a man on a subway is reading a newspaper in the form of a flexible polymer sheet, which is constantly updating like a Web site. That is just one of the many science-fiction applications that will become reality when this new technology is perfected and introduced to the market.
``As soon as you get flexible electronics, the opportunities go through the roof,'' said Sharell Mikesell, co-director of the Center for Multifunctional Polymer Nanomaterials and Devices at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Other areas of innovation will include solar cells.
``We have to convert more than 10 percent of photons to make it cost-effective,'' Mikesell said. ``We're at 2 percent right now.''
But advancements are being made and he believes scientists are on the brink of cracking the 9-10 percent level.
``We'll have some neat Christmas gifts for 2009. That's what that means,'' he said.
Another area Ohio is poised to capitalize on is advancements in wind energy. A typical blade on a wind turbine at today's wind farms is 35 meters. The math says harvesting wind for energy becomes economically viable with larger blades in the 50-meter to 75-meter range. Ohio companies are poised to build the larger blades, which Mikesell suggests would take wind energy from a minor contributor to a major player in the power industry.
When consumers hear about biopolymers or biomaterials, the first thought is often that the end result is a biodegradable product. Not so fast, Jacomet said.
``Biomaterials will be in the same markets that plastics now play in,'' he said.
Plastics derived from plant life eventually will be every bit as permanent as the ones created from petrochemical feedstocks, he said. The goal is to create complementary products rather than try to displace today's plastics, he said.
The question, Myers said, is, ``Can we do it for the same price?''
We still pay less for gasoline than we do for bottled water,'' he said.