While Australia is forging ahead in bioplastics and nanotechnology research, industry observers says there is a disconnect between research institutions and industry.
Many industry observers say too much research is academic and not being translated into commercial reality.
Lex Edmond, president of the Society of Plastics Engineers Australia-New Zealand, said much current research focuses on creating biodegradable plastics from natural products. “There has been a shift away from using oil and petroleum to create plastics [to] using natural products, like algae, as a carbon source,” he said.
Nanotechnology, involving molecular manipulation to alter molecules' properties, is another major research trend in Australia, with many products now commercially available, according to Edmond.
But Kevin Thomson, former SPE ANZ president and director of Melbourne, Australia-based Eco Products Agency, said Australian companies are not using those new technologies and innovations commercially; so, the mindset of most Australian researchers is, “Who can we sell to overseas?” Thomson's agency helps businesses reduce environmental impacts from the use of plastics.
John Petschel, managing director of industrial design firm APS Innovations Pty. Ltd. of Ferntree Gully, agrees that Australian innovation is under-utilized, but researchers must accept some of that responsibility. “Institutions and universities need a business model that makes sense,” he said. “If ideas and research are not commercially applicable or understandable, it's obvious they won't succeed.”
On the other hand, a growing percentage of large firms are now multinational and owned by overseas companies — a trend that is partly to blame for devaluing Australian research.
“I work with a lot of businesses that want to do something innovative, but it's difficult because someone behind a big desk in another country is allocating minimal spending money to research and development,” Petschel said.
“Generally, foreign owners only give enough funding for operational expenses and there's no money for innovation. This has retarded research and development in Australia.”
Despite the criticisms, Australia has many plastics companies — several of which have developed from research insti- tutions — that are marketing innovative products globally.
For example, Melbourne-based Cardia Bioplastics Ltd. develops, makes and markets biohybrid and compostable resins and uses them in its packaging and plastics products. Engineers research ways to optimize materials for customer-specific applications at Cardia's global applications development center.
Such cutting-edge research is in progress at institutions across the nation. For example, the Australian government's science and engineering research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, has made breakthroughs in reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer, or RAFT technology, which allows users to tailor polymer properties by controlling molecular weight and polymer structure.
RAFT enables the controlled addition of monomers, resulting in better-defined polymer structures to improve a product's quality, strength, resilience and functionality. Invented by CSIRO and developed in partnership with Sydney-based DuPont (Australia) Ltd., the technology has generated global interest. CSIRO's RAFT developer, Ezio Rizzardo, was named among the world's top 100 chemists for his research.
Research at the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, in New South Wales, Australia, focuses on using organic conducting and biodegradable polymers to regenerate cells that use electrical impulses, like those in the spinal cord and muscles.
IPRI professor Simon Moulton said organic polymers, unlike ordinary polymers, conduct electricity rather than acting as insulators. “We call them ‘intelligent polymers' because, when you apply electrical stimulation, they respond,” he said
IPRI grows its own intelligent polymers using chemical synthesis, Moulton said. A sheet of polymers, similar to any other plastic sheet, is created and human tissue added to it. “Polymers can support the growth of human cells and give off electrical stimuli to change how the cells function and grow. But, when tissue is stimulated, nerve growth is often uncontrollable so we have to create ‘train tracks' to guide how the nerves grow,” he said.
The tracks, made from dissolvable polymers, act as scaffolding and are especially important when creating polymer structures for the spinal cord. IPRI hopes, in the future, to grow the scaffold structures with conductive polymers attached in the lab, and then implant them into animals with nerve damage to stimulate regeneration.
Much of Australia's current research focuses on naturally sourced polymer structures, such as plant-fiber biocomposites developed by the Melbourne-based Co-operative Research Centre for Advanced Composite Structures. Thermoplastic biocomposites, also based on plant fiber, have been combined with conventional thermoplastics to replace timber in some applications.
Also of Melbourne, the Co-operative Research Centre for Polymers is researching degradable packaging materials derived from renewable resources. Although technology for converting starch into packaging materials already has been developed and commercialized by Plantic Technologies Pty. Ltd. of Melbourne, the CRC for Polymers hopes to tackle limiting factors such as moisture sensitivity.
The center's research aims to solve issues that prevent natural packaging materials being used for high-water-content products.
CRC for Polymers also has partnered with Melbourne-based Ceram Polymerik Pty. Ltd. to develop ceramifying polymer composites for passive fire-protection applications with enhanced properties for strength, thermal resistance and insulation, fire retardance and intumescence.
In a fire, the polymer composites transform into a ceramic structure when a specific temperature is reached. Applications include buildings, ships, vehicles and industrial and defensive equipment, as well as electric cabling and fire-door seals.