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by Constance Harness

"Plastics . . . There is a great future in plastics. Think about it." Quoting that famous "plastics" line from the film, The Graduate, John Yaukey, Gannett News Service, in USA today details new tasks for plastics. He reports that scientists are discovering uses for this material such as conducting electricity, killing germs, fighting disease, and repairing damaged nerves.

Plastics are synthetic polymers which are pliable, lightweight, and cheap to make. They are generally insulators and not conductors because their molecules lack the free electrons necessary for carrying current in materials like metals. However, in the 1970s, a Japanese researcher, Hidaki Shirakawa, accidentally produced a semi-conducting plastic when he botched an experiment. The method of adding atoms has greatly improved and has produced a generation of superdurable plastic transistors, lasers, light-emitting diodes (calculator displays), and flat panel displays.

This technology is central to the advancement of computing and the Internet. The hope and goal from this new knowledge is to have plastic electronic components perform comparably to silicon at a fraction of the cost. However, since plastics are soft, electronic polymers, they are more prone to impaired performance. Electricity doesn’t move through plastic components as quickly as through silicon; and thus, the short-term goal is to use conductive plastics to complement, rather than compete with, silicon. This can be seen already in the high performance and lightweight portability of laptops, cellphones, etc.

Success of mending damaged nerves by placing the severed ends into an electrically conductive plastic sleeve packed with sugar was reported by scientists at the University of Texas. The sugar encourages blood vessel growth which stimulates nerve regeneration. The electrical properties of the plastic sleeve benefit the nerves. After several weeks, the plastic dissolves.

Antimicrobial rubber which contains receptors that cause chlorine atoms to cling to it was developed by scientists at Auburn (Alabama) University and can be used for medical supplies such as gloves, aprons, and catheters as well as consumer products such as baby bottles and pacifiers.

Ovarian cancer cells have been suppressed by treating them with antibacterial drugs embedded in polymers. It appears that the future, at least some of it, may really be great thanks to plastics. Think about it.

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