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‘Just One Word … Plastics’

by A. Maureen Rouhi
June 10, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 23

Readers of a certain age may remember this line from one of the biggest movies of 1967: “There’s a great future in plastics.” In the movie “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman, plastics was a metaphor for what was superficial in American life in the 1960s. Literally, though, the statement was prescient. Synthetic polymers now are so integral to modern life that it’s difficult not to encounter them in the course of an ordinary day.

The ubiquity of synthetic polymers was on my mind as I prepared to travel to Cleveland on June 6. The department of macromolecular science and engineering of Case Western Reserve University hosted a conference, MACRO Frontiers 2013, to celebrate its 50-year anniversary. By the time you read this page, macromolecular experts from Case Western and 12 other institutions will have regaled participants with the new paths they are forging for plastics and other polymers.

The department has much to celebrate. It has the distinction of being the “first stand-alone polymer department” in the U.S. It came about in 1963, when Eric Baer, now the Leonard Case Jr. Professor of Macromolecular Science & Engineering at Case Western’s School of Engineering, organized the Polymer Science Group at Case Institute of Technology, the predecessor of Case Western. Baer was a polymer expert at DuPont, and his vision was to establish an academic group dedicated to understanding polymers, in contrast to making polymers. Of course, knowing the physics and chemistry of polymers enables synthesis of new ones for specific purposes.

Baer’s specialization then was the mechanical behavior of solid polymers. The original group included experts in polymer morphology (Phillip H. Geil), spectroscopic characterization of polymer structure (Jack L. Koenig), polymer solution thermodynamics (Samuel H. Maron), polymer rheology (Irvin H. Krieger), and free-radical chemistry (J. Reid Shelton). With such firepower, Case Western established a Ph.D. program in polymer science and granted the first degree in 1965. A bachelor’s degree in polymer science and engineering followed in 1970.

Altogether, Case Western has graduated about 1,800 polymer science and engineering students. Alumni hold leadership positions at 3M, Avery Dennison, Dow Chemical, Eastman, ExxonMobil, Goodyear, Lubrizol, PolyOne, Sealed Air, and Sherwin-Williams. According to data from Chemical Abstracts Service, publications related to polymers and materials make up about 16% of the database records from Case Western and all its name variations.

I wish the department continued success in realizing polymers’ great future as advanced materials for medicine, health care, food safety, transportation, energy, and national security.

As ubiquitous as plastics in our lives is the “Made in China” label on many plastic items. But China is more than a source of baubles. Three stories in this issue illustrate how Chinese chemical interests have become more sophisticated.

“China Homecoming” (see page 34) describes the boom in R&D funding in China that is enticing many Chinese Ph.D. chemists trained overseas to establish careers in their homeland. “Choosing China” (see page 20 ) shows how Chinese entrepreneurs, such as Crystal Pharmatech founder Alex Chen, are competing in materials research and other high-end services for late-stage drug development. That’s a market that used to be cornered by Western contract research organizations. Moving still higher in the value chain is BeiGene, a Beijing-based biotech company that is partnering with the German drug company Merck Serono to develop and commercialize a cancer drug that is still only in preclinical development (see page 8 ).

This progression bodes well for China’s evolution to a developed first-world economy. Yet I’m not sure that the great future China anticipates is nigh. Huge problems beset the country, including environmental pollution, lack of a stable energy supply, changing political values, and an aging population.

China will need more than one word like plastics—metaphorical or literal—to bring its potential in line with its hopes.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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