Summary and Recommendations
A revolution has taken place over the last 50 years in the field of synthetic polymers, whose applications have rapidly permeated most aspects of our daily lives. The scientific and technical advances, and the consequent business successes, have been steady and abundant. However, in this post-Cold War era of growing international economic competitiveness, it is clear that the United States must plan wisely if it is to participate fully in the future of this dynamic field. The investment will allow the United States to continue to enjoy the many societal benefits that will flow from research and development in polymer science and engineering.
To help provide a basis for such planning, the National Research Council's (NRC) Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology asked the committee responsible for this report to conduct a comprehensive assessment of research opportunities in polymer science and engineering and to point out the field's contributions to national issues. The assignment included definition of research frontiers, identification of national research and educational challenges, and delineation of the corresponding funding priorities needed for planning by funding agencies. The report builds on two earlier NRC reports, Polymer Science and Engineering: Challenges, Needs, and Opportunities (NRC, 1981) and Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s (NRC, 1989).
POLYMER SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING: RELEVANCE AND OPPORTUNITIES
Polymers are molecules that contain many atoms, typically tens of thousands to millions. While many polymers occur naturally as products of biological
processes, synthetic polymers are made by chemical processes that combine many small units, called monomers, together in chains, branched chains, or more complicated geometries. Starch, cellulose, proteins, and DNA are examples of natural polymers, while nylon, Teflon®, and polyethylene are examples of the synthetic variety. Both classes possess a number of highly useful properties that are as much a consequence of the large size of these molecules as of their chemical composition. Although most synthetic polymers are organic, that is, they contain carbon as an essential element along their chains, other important polymers, such as silicones, are based on noncarbon elements.
The rapid pace of advances in polymers, with only a few decades separating their first commercial development from their present pervasive use, has been remarkable. Synthetic polymers are so well integrated into the fabric of society that we take little notice of our dependence on them. This is truly the polymer age! Society benefits across the board—in health, medicine, clothing, transportation, housing, defense, energy, electronics, employment, and trade. Without a doubt, synthetic polymers have large impacts on our lives.
Although progress to date in polymer science and engineering can be considered revolutionary, opportunities are abundant for creating new polymeric materials and modifying existing polymers for new applications. Scientific understanding is now replacing empiricism, and polymeric materials can be designed on the molecular scale to meet the ever more demanding needs of advanced technology. The possible control of synthetic processes by biological systems is promising as a means of perfecting structures. New catalysts offer the opportunity to make new materials with useful properties, and the design of new specialty polymers with high-value-added applications is an area of rapidly increasing emphasis. Theory, based in part on the availability of high-speed computing, offers new understanding and aids in the development of improved techniques for preparing polymers as well as predicting their properties. Analytical methods, including an array of new microscopic techniques particularly suited to polymers, have been developed recently and promise to work hand-in-hand with theoretical advances to provide a rational approach to developing new polymers and polymer products. The field of polymer science and engineering therefore shows no sign of diminished vigor, assuring new applications in medicine, biotechnology, electronics, and communications that will multiply the investment in research many times over in the next few decades.
FACTORS AFFECTING U.S. STRENGTH IN POLYMERS
The U.S. Response to Global Competition
Changing world conditions and shifting national priorities have necessitated a reexamination of U.S. research and development activities. What are the potential benefits of polymer science and engineering? What can the United States
do to maintain its strength in this promising but internationally competitive area? Can we ensure that our citizens will benefit from developments over the long term as well as in the immediate future? More specific questions that need to be addressed include the following:
Will government policy encourage a state of health in the polymer industry?
What level of research and development spending is necessary for the long term to enable effective competition with other nations?
How can funding for university, industry, and government laboratories facilitate the development of new technologies and products that will benefit society?
How can state-of-the-art industrial infrastructure be maintained for processing and production equipment?
How should production, distribution, use, and disposal of polymeric materials be managed to ensure protection of the environment and the health of the public?
Current Conditions and Trends in Research
Federal support for polymer research has always been modest in comparison with all funding for advanced materials and processing. The federal materials research and development budget request for 1993 was $1,821 million (FCCSET, 1992). The polymer science and engineering portion was only $93 million (5%), although some fraction of the budgets for other categories includes support for polymer research. The basic research segment for polymers from the National Science Foundation amounted to only $23 million in 1993.
Industrial support for polymer science and engineering research has been very strong over the decades, but that support appears to be ebbing quickly as corporations retreat from long-range research to research aimed at near-term product introduction or modification. The principal U.S. competitors, Germany and Japan, will contest U.S. leadership in research (NSF, 1992) and thus challenge one of the few remaining areas of U.S. trade that posts a positive balance. Meeting this challenge will depend on maintaining a solid research effort.
Among the worldwide trends in the polymer industry is a shift in R&D focus from commodity plastics, produced in massive quantities, to engineering plastics that have superior properties but are produced in lower volumes. In recent years, the emphasis has been on specialty polymers that are expensive yet have specific properties that confer high value, for example, medical prostheses such as replacement tendons and hip cups, or flexible light-emitting diodes. Although the specialty market is still emerging, it is clear that it will be research intensive and highly competitive. Failure to support this area now could limit U.S. participation in the benefits of applications. Beyond funding, there is a
need to nurture relationships between polymer researchers and practitioners of medical, biological, electronic, and other fields of application. These researcher-practitioner relationships are poorly established in the United States at this time, and federal funding policies could enhance such interactions, for example, by encouraging joint grants to foster collaboration.
Another concern arises from the interdisciplinary nature of polymer science and engineering, and the lack of the field's integration into most university curricula. Isolated faculty members specializing in polymer research can be found in many chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science and engineering departments, yet at many universities the barriers between departments prevent effective interdisciplinary collaboration in polymer research and teaching. Most students in technical programs currently receive little training in polymer science and engineering, in spite of the fact that in many of these fields more than half of the students will eventually pursue careers in which they will be centrally involved with polymers. As achievements in polymer research become more accessible to faculty in traditional fields, polymer science may be expected to become part of the core education in science. In the interim, substantial benefits would result from an emphasis in academic programs on forming teams across groups or disciplines to carry out interdisciplinary work at the frontiers of polymer science and engineering.
The comprehensive understanding of international and national developments and planning for constructive change involving government, industry, and academia, therefore, are central to our nation's full enjoyment of the many benefits of polymer science and engineering research.
LOOKING AHEAD: FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The committee's conclusions and recommendations are based on the following tenets. First, it is essential that a strong basic research community be sustained. Short-term or product research will not suffice to prepare for future challenges. Second, strong ties between basic research and applications need to be maintained in order to reap maximum commercial benefits. Thus, industry must continue polymer research and maintain communication with academic scientists and engineers. Finally, the committee believes that success in developing the next generation of commercial polymers will depend on strong and extensive collaborative research at the interfaces between polymers and other areas of science and engineering.
Summarized below are the committee's main findings and recommendations resulting from its deliberations. Additional conclusions and recommendations are given in the main text of the report.
Research Balance for Long-term National Well-being
Findings and Conclusions: Polymeric materials production, a large, diverse industry in which the United States has been a leader for several decades, accounted for revenues of over $100B, employment of over 170,000, and a positive trade balance of about $6B in 1992. Polymers have broadly penetrated the materials markets at the commodity, engineering, and high-technology specialty levels. Examples include automobile and airframe components, fibers and fabrics, rubber products of all kinds, and packaging and structural plastics.
Observed trends, however, have raised concerns that the era of leadership and positive contribution to the U.S. economy is in danger of coming to an end. Industrial research funding generally reported indicates a 7 percent increase in 1992 over 1991 (Business Week, 1993), but other surveys and economic indicators are in conflict with such an optimistic analysis. Particularly worrisome are recent organizational changes in industry and the shortening of research horizons to focus on improving existing products and on bringing products to market more rapidly at the expense of research directed to achieving basic understanding and breakthroughs in new materials.
Recommendation 1: To ensure a basis for future success in the U.S. polymer industry and concomitant long-term social and economic benefits for the nation, the committee recommends a broad reassessment of the current balance between research and development in polymer science and engineering. Consideration should be given to the following:
Maintenance of corporate research groups that have a viable nucleus of highly qualified specialists, to enable corporations to take advantage of continuing advances and breakthroughs;
Development of government policies and legislation that encourage achievement of long-term, rather than just short-term, goals by industry and that stimulate industry and economic well-being;
Funding by government of programs that encourage industry collaboration with academia and with national laboratories; and
Increased funding for polymer research that reflects the significance of polymers as a key element in the current materials initiatives.
Increased Interaction Between Polymer Researchers and Practitioners: Need for Interdisciplinary Approaches and Team Efforts
Findings and Conclusions: As the field of polymer science and engineering and the problems it addresses have grown larger and more complex, the need has increased for an integrated approach to achieving improvements in such key areas as manufacturing, transportation, energy, housing, medicine, information and communications, and defense.
Recommendation 2: To expand the technology base and secure for the nation the benefits of research at the frontiers, the committee recommends that researchers and funders give high priority to work that strengthens the interface between polymer science and engineering and the many areas, such as medicine and electronics, in which it is applied.
Attention to Supporting High-Priority Frontier Research Areas
Findings and Conclusions: Scientific and technological progress during the 1980s has created rich opportunities for research in polymer science and engineering. The potential is great for future developments that will strongly contribute to areas of national concern.
Recommendation 3: The committee recommends high priority for support of research and education in the following frontier areas:
Interdisciplinary investigations of polymer surfaces and interfaces, including studies to increase understanding of chemical reactions that take place at surfaces and research to enable making smaller structures, thin films, and nanophase materials that have the same scale as the morphological features of polymers;
Synthesis of new polymers and polymeric materials, including methods that precisely control the structure of polymers, biosynthesis, catalysis, and environmentally benign synthesis;
New methods for processing and manufacturing materials, including computer-assisted design of processing and on-line process control;
Characterization of polymers and development of new methods (including, new techniques in microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging) to aid visualization and understanding of polymer properties; and
Theory including modeling, statistical mechanics, and molecular dynamics studies that take advantage of the unprecedented computing power available now and in the foreseeable future. These methods will allow modeling of complex processing operations, prediction of mechanical behavior and failure, calculation of thermodynamic and time-dependent properties, and the design of molecules capable of highly specific molecular recognition.
Further Study of Environmental Issues Related to Materials
Findings and Conclusions: Growing national concern about protecting Earth's resources and the need for sound scientific understanding as a foundation for nonadversarial, constructive environmental legislation present both challenges and opportunities for polymer science and engineering. Increasingly, technical progress in polymer science and engineering is driven by environmental considerations. For example, the environmental impact of using polymeric materials
depends in part on how they are disposed of at the end of their useful life. Clearly, no single pathway of disposal is optimal for all materials, and researchers are looking at several alternatives: direct recycling, degradation, and incineration with heat recovery as opposed to landfill disposal. Efforts also are being made to minimize waste by-products during manufacture and to extend the useful life of materials by improving their properties. Emissions reduction has become a major goal of virtually all polymer-producing enterprises. Opportunities exist for polymer scientists and engineers to contribute to the development of more environmentally benign products and processes. However, understanding and dealing effectively with the difficult issues concerning environmental impact will require an integrated approach drawing on the strengths of polymer science and engineering, economics, and policy analysis.
Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that an independent committee at the national level be appointed to accomplish the following:
Analysis of the environmental issues posed by materials, including polymers; and
Scientific, engineering, and economic analyses of polymeric materials production, processing, use, recycling, and end-use disposal as a guide to environmental policymaking.
Encouragement of Active Collaboration Across Subfields of Materials Science and Engineering
Findings and Conclusions: Interdisciplinary polymer science and engineering research in nontraditional areas and with nontraditional partners will have maximum impact on developments in science and technology and their contribution to ensuring U.S. economic strength and international competitiveness. Yet the fields concerned with broad classes of materials, such as metals, ceramics, electronic materials, biological materials, and polymers, continue to be quite separate in terms of professional societies, academic disciplines, publication media, and industrial organizations. Moreover, the differing technical languages and cultures of the subfields have complicated efforts to establish interactions and collaborations. Even within the polymer area, which is characterized by breadth and diversity, communication can be limited by the insularity of the subfields.
Currently, fragmentation is particularly evident at the interfaces between polymer science and other technical areas. Closer ties between the polymer research community and, for example, groups studying medical and biological materials or those focusing on structural composites and electronic and optical materials could provide important synergies. To achieve progress, bridges must be built to link diverse disciplines and fields. All materials fields would benefit from closer relationships and better communication.
Recommendation 5: To enhance progress in polymer science and engineering through increased collaboration across the subfields of materials science and engineering, the committee recommends the following:
Initiation of efforts to better integrate the field of polymer science and engineering both internally among polymer subdisciplines and externally with other materials subfields, including, for example, establishment of interdisciplinary programs by academia, initiation of cooperative programming by professional societies, funding of synergistic cross-boundary projects by government agencies, and structural reorganization by industrial laboratories to maximize cooperation among the various materials subfields;
Adoption by funding agencies of a broader definition of polymer science and engineering in order to foster advances in interdisciplinary research and education; and
Efforts to take advantage of research opportunities at the interfaces between polymer science and engineering and other materials areas.
Business Week. 1993. ''R&D Scoreboard: In the Labs, the Fight to Spend Less, Get More." June 28, pp. 102-127.
Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET). 1992. Advanced Materials and Processing: The Fiscal Year 1993 Program . A report by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, FCCSET Committee on Industry and Technology. (Available from Committee on Industry and Technology/COMAT, c/o National Institute of Standards and Technology, Rm. B309, Materials Building, Gaithersburg, MD 20899.)
National Research Council (NRC). 1981. Polymer Science and Engineering: Challenges, Needs, and Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
National Research Council (NRC). 1989. Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s: Maintaining Competitiveness in the Age of Materials. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
National Science Foundation (NSF). 1992. National Patterns of R&D Resources: 1992. NSF 92-330. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.