There was a lot of trial and error in early research on polymers over one hundred years ago. Is it still like that today ?
No, absolutely not, and fortunately so. Although it is true that laboratories were more focused on fundamental research up until around thirty years ago. Scientists were researching new materials without really thinking about their potential uses. It was only once they were developed that the question arose of what they might be used for. There were many potential uses, so it was not really a problem. However, this method did have a significant drawback: it was expensive and it was sometimes difficult to make it profitable even though the companies’ growth bore the brunt of the cost.
What developments were made in thirty years ?
Like many other industries, the chemical industry was rationalised while opening up to markets. The trend became even more pronounced over the past years due to the economic crisis that we are experiencing. Nowadays, we are no longer looking to design a new polymer or a new composite for the sole beauty of science. When the chemical industry decides to explore new avenues, it is with the knowledge that certain industries are looking for materials for very specific uses. I could mention the aerospace industry, for instance, which is increasingly looking for lighter and more resistant materials.
So there are strong links between manufacturers ?
Yes, and especially with those who have close ties to consumers. Much like polymers, economic models are a long chain. Plastics manufacturers are the first link, then come the transformers and finally the industrialists who commercialise their finished products to the general public. The latter know what consumers want and meet their demands. In order to satisfy its clients, a tire manufacturer would like to design a tire that saves on petrol, a sports equipment manufacturer seeks to commercialise a shoe that perfectly moulds the contours of the foot, etc. Chemists do not currently have the right, appropriate solution, but knowing market-needs enables them to explore these avenues.
Is the improvement of existing plastics a line of research ?
The continuous improvement of materials is a significant part of the work. Research functions through implementation to a large extent. The process is generally time-consuming, as it only advances by small increments or by degrees. Take the first polycarbonate car headlights as an example: they were considered revolutionary around fifteen years ago as they were so lightweight and could be moulded into any shape, to the delight of designers everywhere. However, they had one huge drawback: they were easily scratched and became slightly opaque over time. It took several years for manufacturers to solve these problems by gradually improving the polymer.
Speaking of polycarbonate headlights: are the industrial processes used in their manufacture integrated in research ?
This is also one of the major changes that occurred in recent years. The industry believes that developing a new polymer is not sufficient on its own if no thought has been given to the processes for producing it. Here again, it works with the transformers in order to adapt or even design new machines for injection-moulding these new plastics. The major constraint, after all, is economic in nature; as innovative and exciting as a new polymer may be, it will never be used if producing it is too costly. This is why composite materials will not become part of ordinary consumer-level cars for the foreseeable future. They are lighter than steel and help to save on fuel over time, but they are still too expensive to produce. In order to make them profitable, car manufacturers would have to sell vehicles at a much higher price than they currently do.
What are the current major avenues of research ?
I believe that we will be seeing very few or no developments with regard to the major families of polymers in coming years. The basics have been mastered! Of course, certain laboratories may announce exciting breakthroughs, but they will be at an experimental stage of development. Research centres are generally unable to produce more than a few grams, at exorbitant costs. This being said, they nevertheless serve to advance our knowledge of materials and molecular chemistry. With reference to Solvay, we have been researching composite materials for several years as we are certain that there are many avenues for improvement, namely with regard to lowering their cost and making them more affordable as a result. We predict a bright future for plastics in the area of sensors for the medical industry or oil drilling, for instance.
The aim is twofold: finding plastics that are both resistant to almost everything and very fine at the same time. It is currently possible to print electrical circuits directly, thanks to polymers: i.e. organic electronics (OLED), another step towards the extreme miniaturisation that we are striving for.
Finally, can Solar Impulse, of which you are a major partner, be considered a laboratory ?
Yes, and we are very lucky as this project enables us to test our main innovations in the real world. I remember us having many questions that seemed to have no answers at the time of launching the project ten years ago. With a lot of hard work, we were able to create a sort of skin that encapsulates the tens of thousands of solar cells on the aircraft's wings. All in all, it is only a few microns thick and it is flexible enough to resist deformation. We have also developed a new grade of Torlon®, a polyamide-imide that can withstand temperatures of 275 °C and that has excellent flow behaviour. This polymer was used to make the skeleton of the wings, which we contributed to modelling. We predict that it will find many uses, particularly in the automotive industry.
Solvay: research in figures
15 research centres around the world
Around 2,000 researchers
A budget of 280 M Euros
Between 250 and 900 patents filed per year