This Is Plastics: Plastics are Critical to the Development of Smart Materials


Plastics are Critical to the Development of Smart Materials

Plastics are key to the development of smart materials—an emerging technology vital to industries including healthcare and construction.


Smart materials are a type of material that can respond to environmental conditions. They are a leading innovation in the field of material science, which studies the best design and application of different materials like glass, wood and plastics. One set of smart materials are “smart polymers” or stimuli-responsive polymers (SRPs), a unique set of plastics that are revolutionizing the design of objects made with smart materials.

While only in initial research stages, smart materials like plastics have the potential to benefit innumerous industries through their various applications. For example, in healthcare and construction, researchers are already studying the advantages of SRPs and examining ways to leverage smart materials to develop cutting-edge medical treatments and make buildings safer and more efficient. With current projections estimating that the global smart polymer market is expected to grow by 17% from 2018 to 2025 and companies like DuPont and Merck already investing in new material science research—the opportunities to extend the technology’s benefits to new, different applications are endless.

Plastic polymers are the ideal building block for smart materials

Plastics are uniquely able to support innovation in material science and smart materials. Plastic polymers are hydrophobic, which means that smart materials made with SRPs can be easily sterilized and less inclined to attract dirt, bacteria and viruses. This is especially important for applications in healthcare and microchip manufacturing, where it is imperative that components avoid contact with contaminants to reduce production inefficiencies. Plastic alternatives, like glass or metal, can contain trace metals, organics and other contaminant particles, which can compromise functionality and safety in final products.

Plastic polymers are also highly electronically responsive and can withstand large forces of electricity which, when used in smart material applications, allows them to better respond to stimuli in a given environment. Researchers have been particularly focused on smart polymers that can be used in sensory products that rely on microchips. These devices were traditionally made from ceramic materials that break or malfunction more often, while plastics are more durable and perform at a higher level.

Plastics are vital to innovative clinical applications

In the healthcare industry, plastic polymers have long played an integral role in supporting drug absorption. More recently, researchers have leveraged the responsive capabilities of smart materials to tailor individualized therapeutic strategies for drug absorption in lifesaving cancer treatments. “Self-healing” and “shape memory” polymers (SMPs), two types of SRPs, can automatically recover their original structure after repeated damages and can be administered intravenously to ensure that patients get the medication they need at the right time, at the right dosage. A 2019 study found that these polymers can even be used to transport healthy T-cells through the bloodstream during cell therapy—a cutting-edge cancer treatment. Shape memory and injectable properties make these innovative smart polymer medical interventions highly customizable and minimally invasive, ideal for at-risk patients.

Researchers have also found that SRPs have enormous potential for use in responsive drug uptake systems—timed-release of medication to the bloodstream in response to stimuli. Employing plastics-based “smart drug” treatment plans can help physicians tailor patient treatment and limit medicinal errors or conflicts. More research into new polymers that are biocompatible and biodegradable will only enhance smart polymer’s current clinical applications.

Smart polymers make building structures safer and more efficient

Plastics are already fundamental to the construction industry, due in large part to their versatility, durability and low cost. Civil and architectural engineers are looking to incorporate smart materials to fortify new structures—increasing their lifetimes, enhancing their performance over time and making them more energy efficient.

Smart polymers, particularly SMPs, have a variety of applications in civil and architectural engineering that make buildings safer. Structural components, like rods, beams and plates, made from SRP-based plastics can be used as a vibration control system to help preserve a building’s structural integrity during earthquakes. Recent studies have also suggested using smart materials to make sensors that can detect deterioration and potential damage at early stages, preventing catastrophic structural failures. Structures made with smart materials, and more specifically SRPs, are not only safer but their ability to “self-heal” keeps maintenance costs and concerns low. 

Smart polymers are also used in ‘SMART’ tiles, which are designed to wrinkle and reposition themselves in response to solar radiation. These tiles can be applied to building façades to reduce thermal transmission through their surfaces and make buildings more energy efficient.

Plastics are an increasingly significant player in the advancement of material science—a role only slated to grow with the rise of smart materials in healthcare and civil engineering. With plastics and plastics-based smart materials, industries have an opportunity to leverage this emerging technology to address difficult challenges and craft new solutions for long-had problems.

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