My privacy under control
An unforgeable ID card
Not a day goes by without someone's identity being stolen to make fraudulent purchases on the Internet. This has become a significant problem for online shops. The most conscientious have to deploy all possible efforts to fight these types of scams. As a result, some of them are asking for identity cards with built-in "dematerialised services" or "everyday life" chips to be issued. The chip would serve to prove the identity of the holder for various transactions over the Internet. Citizens would sign administrative documents and make electronic commercial transactions through a device connected to their computers which is able to read a chip coated in a polymer. Obviously, in these times of big data, certain consumer groups are rightly concerned by this new intrusion into our privacy.
The debate continues. However, this new identity card is purported to be entirely unforgeable. Encapsulated between two heat-sealed plastic films, the card would obviously contain an electronic chip (maybe even two, one for biometric data and one for data used for making purchases). New types of polymer-based inks would also be used. These inks are very difficult to reproduce and only become visible when lit by a light at a certain frequency, such as ultra-violets, for instance..
The driving license opens the way
In the meantime, the new European driving licenses are now made of plastic. Made from polycarbonate, the new driving license contains a hologram like those used in biometric passports, but also "ghost images" and inks that only react to UV-light. These are but a few of the processes used to make things unforgeable as most of the processes are kept secret for obvious reasons. One thing is certain, this new type of license will be unforgeable and cannot be used to justify a payment or steal an identity as is the case with current paper licenses that are still found in many countries.
But why stop there? Some believe that credit card and identity card will be one and the same in a not too distant future. While smartphone manufacturers are offering special e-payment applications, there is a strong push towards combining "identification documents" and debit cards into a single card. This would constitute a true barrier to fraud so secure would it be. Although it has not yet reached the stage of prototyping, designers are already working on its development. They envision it as an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen, otherwise known as a flexible screen. Users would have a flexible "piece of plastic" only a few millimetres thick, which could be kept in their wallets or even worn as a bracelet.
Banknotes: the end of paper
Even though they only represent a small fraction of the global money supply (less than 5% and the number decreases every year), banknotes still have a bright future ahead of them, although paper does not. Some European nations such as Britain are considering replacing paper with a polymer by 2016. Around thirty countries throughout the world, including Canada, have already adopted these plastic banknotes. Unfortunately, the nature of the polymer or polymers used is a closely-kept secret for obvious reasons, but why change over from paper to plastic? Simply because the techniques used make them unforgeable. Of course, that is the main reason, but far from being the only one.
Polymers extend banknotes' lifespans threefold, ensure that they are cleaner as they can be wiped down with a sponge and the notes are rendered recyclable. Polymer-based banknotes are more expensive to manufacture, but they are more cost-efficient in the long run as they are perfectly secure and last longer. They also have improved resistance to extreme conditions, such as washing machines, for instance. The Bank of England believes that introducing this new type of banknote would help it to save around 100 million pounds over ten years.
Since being adopted by the army, film crews and jewellers to transport various objects, ABS suitcases and carrying cases are at the top of the pile. For good reason, too, as they will withstand almost anything: impacts, falls, extreme temperatures (- 40° to + 80°), they are even perfectly water- and air-tight, and help keep their contents safe from dust. All of these reasons contribute to the success they have had, which is complemented by the fact that they are lightweight and therefore seldom subject to surcharges for air transport. But the cases themselves are only one part of the whole, the polymer foams on the insides are just as important. Once again, manufacturers have surpassed themselves with the sheer number of materials used. High-density polyethylene for holding the contents, neoprene for air- and water-tightness and polyurethane for thermal insulation.
Closed cell polyethylene is also a favourite of jewellers thanks to its fine grain which serves to enhance the jewellery resting on it. These foams are also very easy to sculpt to the exact shape of the object they are used to protect.
Plastics for tomorrow's healthcare
Medical science is one of the areas in which plastics have the brightest of futures. Manufacturers of medical devices such as prostheses and stents are increasingly investigating polymers due to their intrinsic qualities: they are light, do not oxidise, stabilisation over time and even, for a new generation of stents, use biodegradable materials that dissolve once the artery has been "repaired". However, the most breathtaking development is without a doubt the entirely artificial heart, which was first implanted in France in December 2013. This heart, made entirely of plastics, was the subject of many patents, some of which related entirely to the polymers used in its manufacture.
All the materials used have to be haemocompatible - when the human body detects a foreign body, the blood coagulates and blood-clots form, which cause a risk of blocking arteries. Faced with this major problem, the engineers at Carmat resolved it by creating a new material made from a polymer coated in calf pericardium, which was used for its biological and haemocompatible qualities. This is just one of the many technical breakthroughs achieved. We are confident that the heart, and the materials, will continue to evolve and that it might be ready for mass production in the coming years. A new development, that could potentially save many lives.